What are the respective differences between taxes, duties, imposts and excises? What does it mean concerning taxes when in the US Constitution it says “all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States”?

ANSWER PERSON RESPONDS: This is from Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution: “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States…”. The glossary from the U.S. Treasury Dept’s International Trade Data System http://www.itds.treas.gov/printglossaryfrm.html defines duty as “a tax levied by a government on the import or export of goods,” imposts as “a tax, especially an import duty,” and excise taxes as “taxes on the manufacture, sale, or consumption of goods, or upon licenses to pursue certain occupations, or upon corporate privileges,” which, they explain, in current usage covers about everything besides income taxes. It seems like the writers of the Constitution were throwing in all sorts of synonyms to cover the bases, although in the usage of the 18th century the words may have had other subtle differences. You might want to check an unabridged dictionary or the Oxford English Dictionary to get earlier definitions of these terms.

The uniformity clause makes AP’s head swim when reading about it. Basically, with regard to taxation, everyone must be treated the same within a jurisdiction (same tax rate, etc.). It’s pretty obvious that tea arriving at the port of Charleston would need to have the same rate of federal duties as tea arriving at the port of Baltimore. Beyond that, interpretation gets very, very complex and there seem to be a lot of court cases on whether a tax violates this clause or not. I think the Sixteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was to get around the problem of the income tax not being uniform in some persons’ eyes, i.e., it is apportioned based on income, which varies, rather than strictly on numbers of persons from the census. Also involved was the complicated issue of “direct” (applied to all instances of a good or service) versus “indirect” (applied sort of to a potential, like a licensing fee) taxes. Whether one interpreted the income tax as one or the other affected whether it violated the uniformity clause. However, all this gets into legal areas in which AP is not an expert, so you’re forbidden to quote me! You might want to check if the Law Library has an Answer Person (or perhaps a friendly reference librarian).

 

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