A century ago, as the Presidency of William Howard Taft came to an end, and as Woodrow Wilson was about to be inaugurated, the Constitution had two new amendments added within two months of each other—the 16th Amendment and the 17th Amendment.
Other than the original ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, never was the country to be so affected by constitutional change that transformed the nation, as with these two amendments.
President Taft, the so called “conservative” leaving office, supported both of these amendments, and they have have a massive impact on the nation ever since.
The 16th Amendment established the “progressive” federal income tax, at a time when we had seen the tripling of population, and the multiplication of social and economic injustice since the Civil War 50 years earlier. Without the federal income tax, there was no way that the nation could ever have moved forward and met its responsibilities to its citizens. The only problem was that over the years the wealthy would find all kinds of ways to manipulate the system, and so, today, the federal income tax is no longer very “progressive”. And also, there is a move on by conservatives and libertarians to repeal the income tax amendment, and have a national sales tax instead, a move that will not happen, but it if did, it would mean greater taxation based on consumption, and would hurt the poor and the lower middle class much more than the wealthy and upper middle class.
The 17th Amendment, the most democratizing amendment we had yet seen, called for direct popular election of the United States Senate, a move encouraged by muckraker David Graham Phillips and his book, THE TREASON OF THE SENATE, published in 1909. Instead of corrupt politicians in state legislatures choosing US Senators, an indication that the Founding Fathers did not trust the masses to choose their Senators, the decision was to allow the people to choose their Senators for a six year term.
How could anyone find fault with this, even with the recognition that often states may make “bad” choices for their Senators? Whatever we think about the choices, it is still better to have the people select their Senators, and in a sense, to be held accountable if they make an embarrassing, or disastrous choice. This is the power of the people, a movement toward direct democracy. And yet, there is a movement among conservatives to repeal this amendment, as well as the 16th Amendment.
Fortunately, it is very difficult to accomplish an amendment, and only the repeal of prohibition of liquor, the 21st Amendment effectively negating the 18th Amendment, has ever occurred.
We can look back on a century of the 16th Amendment and the 17th Amendment, and applaud what progressives accomplished a century ago!