Giving online retailers a tax break in the 1990s and taking it away now makes some sense. But is it really the Supreme Court’s job?
In the early days of the internet, online retailers were able to take advantage of a tax shelter that exempted them from sales taxes in states in which they did not have a physical presence. They used this tax shelter to challenge entrenched incumbents and provide consumers with a bounty of new options.
Now, though, the largest internet retailer, Amazon.com Inc., has a stock market capitalization more than three times that of the biggest physical retailer, Walmart Inc. Brick-and-mortar stores are struggling across the land. And the tax shelter for online retail is being revoked.
Looked at this way, it all seems like pretty enlightened policy-making. Upstarts were given a leg up that increased competition and consumer choice, and once they succeeded, it was taken away. One could argue that the tax shelter should have been taken away a decade ago, but hey, it’s hard to get the timing on these things exactly right. Amazon, at least, started collecting sales taxes a year ago in anticipation of the shift.
This exercise in seemingly enlightened policy-making, though, has been the work not of those elected to make policy, in Congress, or even those appointed by the president to make it, in the regulatory agencies. Instead, it has been done entirely by the people appointed by the president to decide legal disputes “between a State and Citizens of another State,” to cite the constitutional language that seems most appropriate in this case. Starting with National Bellas Hess v. [Illinois] Department of Revenue in 1967, and continuing with Quill Corp. v. North Dakota in 1992, the U. S. Supreme Court held that mail-order retailers with no physical presence in a state shouldn’t have to collect sales taxes from customers in that state. The reasoning, from a 1946 Felix Frankfurter opinion that was cited in Bellas Hess (but itself had nothing to do with mail-order retailing), was that
If a retailer had a store or even just a few employees in a state, it was deemed as enjoying the protection of the local government and thus obliged to collect sales taxes. If it didn’t, it wasn’t. Today, as you’ve probably heard, the Supreme Court changed its mind. Wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in his majority opinion:
Makes sense. And Chief Justice John Roberts, in his dissent, agreed that Bellas Hess was “wrongly decided” in 1967, and that the internet has changed lots of things since then. But then he wrote:
Members of Congress have been trying. The Marketplace Fairness Act, first introduced in 2013; the Remote Transactions Parity Act, first introduced in 2015; and the Online Sales Tax Simplification Act, which as best I can tell was never formally introduced but got some attention in 2015 and 2016, all aimed to allow states to collect sales taxes from online retailers. Another bill, the No Regulation Without Representation Act, introduced in 2017, would have kept the sale tax exemption in place. But… none of them came close to passing.
So now the Supreme Court has done Congress’s job for it. This brought to mind a conversation I had last week with Paul Tucker, the former deputy governor of the Bank of England who studied how policy is made in the U. S. for a new book and came away convinced that this country’s reliance on the courts is out of hand. In a democratic system, he argued, it’s Congress that should be making policy and keeping watch over the appointed technocrats who do — not the courts.
In the case of South Dakota v. Wayfair Inc., today’s decision, there likely won’t be too much of a backlash. Yes, some people will be mad about having to pay sales taxes on online purchases on which they did not pay taxes before, but there actually aren’t that many such purchases left. The Government Accountability Office estimated last year that the top 100 internet retailers already collected 87 to 96 percent of the sales taxes that state and local governments want them to collect. Also, this does not seem to be a partisan issue, many in Congress will likely be glad to have a thankless task taken off their hands, and Kennedy could, with some justification, argue that since the Supreme Court had created this problem (or opportunity, if you prefer), it was the Supreme Court’s job to fix it.
Still, it’s not hard to think of what ifs. I happen to harbor a probably unrealistic belief that a national value-added tax would be a great tool to help see the nation through the fiscal challenges of the next few decades while taking pressure off other revenue sources such as the income tax. A coordinated national system for collecting state sales taxes, which is what was envisioned in several of the bills before Congress, would have made that easier. Now, as Roberts wrote in his dissent,
Again, not the biggest deal in the world. And it’s good that this tax distortion is going away. But putting the Supreme Court in charge of ecommerce policy still feels like a mistake.
To contact the author of this story: Justin Fox at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Brooke Sample at email@example.com