Chief Justice Roberts and the window tax

In NFIB v. Sebelius, Chief Justice Roberts imagined a hypothetical federal tax on windows, in order to bolster his point that the Court should treat the individual mandate as a “tax,” even though the Obamacare statute calls it a “penalty.”

Suppose Congress enacted a statute providing that every taxpayer who owns a house without energy efficient windows must pay $50 to the IRS. The amount due is adjusted based on factors such as taxable income and joint filing status, and is paid along with the taxpayer’s income tax return. Those whose income is below the filing threshold need not pay. The required payment is not called a “tax,”a “penalty,” or anything else. No one would doubt that this law imposed a tax, and was within Congress’s power to tax. That conclusion should not change simply because Congress used the word “penalty” to describe the payment. Interpreting such a law to be a tax would hardly “[i]mpos[e] a tax through judicial legislation.” Post, at 25. Rather, it would give practical effect to the Legislature’s enactment.

The above language is a plausible argument for the Chief Justice’s tax/penalty analysis. But by discussing a window tax, the Roberts opinion provides one more reminder why the individual mandate, if it is a tax, is a direct tax, not an indirect tax. Direct taxes must be apportioned by state population. Art. I, sect. 9, cl. 4. If the individual mandate is a direct tax, then it is unconstitutional, because it is not apportioned by state population.

Pursuant to the 16th Amendment, direct taxes on income need not be apportioned, but neither the individual mandate nor the hypothetical window tax are taxes on income. Constitutionally, “income” subject to the federal income tax must be  ”undeniable accessions to wealth.” Commissioner v. Glenshaw Glass Co., 348 U.S. 426 (1955). A decision not to buy overpriced insurance from Congress’s Big Insurance pets, like the decision not to buy a particular type of window, is not an “accession to wealth.” The decision provides no additional income to the person.

So let’s accept Chief Justice Roberts’ theory that a window tax and the individual mandate are analytically comparable. On July 9, 1798, Congress enacted a direct tax statute, to pay for national defense preparations against France. “An Act to provide for the valuation of lands and dwelling-houses, and the enumeration of slaves, within the United States. On July 14, Congress passed the “Direct Tax Act,” to provide for collection of the July 9 taxes. Pursuant to the Direct Tax Act, federal assessors were to examine houses to assess them for purposes of the direct tax. In addition, the Direct Tax Act ordered the assessors make records of the number and sizes of windows in each house. The window data were to be gathered so that Congress could, in the future, decide to impose a direct tax on windows. Paul Douglas Newman, Fries’s Rebellion: The Enduring Struggle for the American Revolution 76-77 (2004).

It seems there was no dispute that a window tax was a direct tax. A fortiori, a tax on not having certain types of windows would be also be a direct tax. This is one more piece of evidence that Chief Justice Roberts was wrong in stating that the individual mandate “tax” is not a direct tax. Much more extensive discussion of the direct/indirect tax issue (but not of window taxes) can be found in Rob Natelson’s 27 minute podcast on the subject, for iVoices.org.