Roosevelt Issue Brief, February 2021
The 2020 Democratic presidential primaries brought national attention to a new direction for the tax system: a federal wealth tax for the wealthiest taxpayers. During their campaigns, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) both introduced proposals to tax the wealth of multimillionaires and billionaires, and to use the revenue for public investments, including in health care and education. These reforms generated broad public support—even among many Republicans—and broadened the conversation over the future of progressive tax reform.
A well-designed, high-end wealth tax can level the playing field in an unequal society and promote shared economic prosperity.
Critics have argued, however, that a wealth tax would be unconstitutional because of the Constitution’s apportionment rule, which requires certain taxes to be apportioned among the states according to their populations. These critics advance maximalist interpretations of the apportionment rule and reconstruct the rule as a significant limit on Congress’s constitutional taxing power.
In response to these objections, this brief explains why these critics misinterpret the role of the apportionment rule, and why the Constitution grants Congress broad taxing powers that allow for a wealth tax, whether it is apportioned or not. The maximalist interpretations misapprehend the role of apportionment in the constitutional structure, and improperly elevate a peripheral rule into a major barrier to tax reform.
This brief explains why constitutional history and Supreme Court precedents instead support a measured interpretation of the apportionment rule. This measured interpretation preserves apportionment’s role in the constitutional structure—and does not read the provision out of the Constitution—but also does not improperly inflate the rule into a fundamental limitation to Congress’s taxing power. Under this interpretation, the Constitution allows Congress to enact an unapportioned wealth tax but would still require apportionment for some other forms of taxes, such as a tax on real estate alone.
This brief offers a descriptive analysis of the constitutional provisions and consequently describes how any member of the Supreme Court should evaluate a federal wealth tax, regardless of the member’s personal motives or policy preferences. Discussions of the constitutionality of a wealth tax sometimes conflate this descriptive analysis—as to what the Constitution in fact does and should require—with a predictive analysis of how particular members of the current Supreme Court might rule. Although this brief primarily offers a descriptive analysis of the constitutional provisions and what they require, the final section addresses the separate question of whether Congress should enact a wealth tax at a time when particular members of the Supreme Court may rely upon maximalist arguments to strike it down.
A federal wealth tax warrants sustained and careful debate on the merits: how it should be designed, how it will affect economic activity and tax revenues, and how it should interact with other taxes. This important debate, however, should not be short-circuited by reflexive arguments that a wealth tax would be unconstitutional. Rather, voters and legislators should determine the scope and design of a federal wealth tax, as the Constitution ultimately requires.
Glogower, Ari; Gamage, David; and Richards, Kitty, "Why a Federal Wealth Tax is Constitutional" (2021). Articles by Maurer Faculty. 2959.