Q71A: Which is not a reason to pay federal taxes? 

A. Required by the U.S. Constitution [16th amendment] and law 
B. Required by civic duty
C. Because it gives a discount on state taxes
D. All of the above

Q71B: When is the last day you can send in federal income tax forms?

A. April 17th
B. May 1st
C. April 15th
D. April 1st

Question Background Information


The federal government’s taxing and spending power has always been controversial.  Article I, Section 8 gives Congress the power “to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States.”  What did that mean, and what could they spend it on? 

For James Madison, writing in Federalist 41, that phrase had simply been borrowed from the Articles of Confederation’s careful limitation of power and, as it had in the Articles, meant no more than a shorthand for funding the enumerated powers described in the rest of the document. In other words, for Madison, there was no independent taxing and spending power, only the authority to tax to accomplish the limited goals of the federal government—otherwise, he feared, why bother so carefully limiting federal power? For Alexander Hamilton, by way of contrast, writing shortly after the Constitution went into effect, the tax power was a free-standing power, not an implementation of the Constitution’s enumerated federal powers, and could be used in any way that would advance “the general welfare” of the United States, which initially meant subsidies to desirable manufacturers. Madison won briefly, blocking Hamilton’s subsidies, but Hamilton would win in the end: the Supreme Court eventually adopted a version of Hamilton’s more expansive interpretation during the New Deal.

But what kind of taxes could the federal government implement? Through most of American history, the federal government raised revenue largely through tariffs and land sales, and eventually postage. The Supreme Court had early on upheld the constitutionality of a tax on carriages as a legitimate excise tax (Hylton v. United States), which also gave a green light to other excise taxes, such as on alcohol sales. (That helped a lot too.) But with the frontier being settled, land sales were fading, and the growing prohibition movement in the states threatened that revenue source, too. Even more importantly, the free-trade movement questioned whether tariffs were an economically efficient or just source of government revenue.

In late 1894, Congress turned to the income tax, which had been briefly used during the emergency of the Civil War. Because the Constitution specifically banned “direct taxes” unless apportioned among the states by population, the Supreme Court held an income tax imposed on individuals unconstitutional in 1895. In 1909 Congress proposed and, in 1913, the states ratified, the Sixteenth Amendment to give the federal government a new enumerated power to impose an income tax.

How to pay the tax was another question. The first Sixteenth Amendment income tax instituted tax withholding, in which one’s tax obligations would be withheld from payment—the federal government would take its cut before the taxpayer received it. This system proved unpopular and was quickly repealed, and Americans would calculate their annual earnings and submit a quarterly tax payment. (As it was few Americans were paying income tax, since in an era of limited government, federal expenditures were small). But the payroll tax of Social Security, other New Deal expenditures, and World War II imposed massive new costs on the federal government. In order to fund these new government expenditures, the federal government adopted tax withholding, in which employers withhold the federal government’s share of taxes, effectively the system we have today. 

In the first quarter of every new year, Americans calculate their federal tax obligations and incomes and by April 15 file their tax returns. For those who still owe the federal government, a payment is made, but for most, whose withholding is greater than their actual obligations, they will get their overpayment returned back to them.

Additional Content

Offline Activity


Running a country isn’t cheap, and money needs to come from somewhere. For the U.S. government, revenue to cover expenses comes from a number of sources:  income taxes, corporate taxes, estate taxes, and Medicare taxes, to name just a few. Beyond taxation, under Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, the government also has the power to borrow money to pay for its expenditures; this is known as deficit spending. But how is this money actually spent? In this activity, students will learn about the federal budget and its effort to allocate limited resources. 


  • Provide each group with Federal Taxing and Budgeting
  • Provide each group with The Federal Budget in 2019: CBO Data (at stage 5)

Required files


  1. Divide the class into groups of 3-4 based on the students’ individual levels. Group A is the group that needs some extra support. Group B is the core group that has the core knowledge to complete the activity. Group C is the enrichment group that has mastered the material; Group C students are prepared to extend their knowledge. Each group should have at least one student from Group A, one from Group B, and one from Group C. 
    • If students are in pairs rather than groups, then divide them based on ability as well, pairing those who need support (Group A) with those who have core knowledge and/or have mastered the material (Groups B and C). 
    • This can also be an individual project.  
  2. Provide each group with Federal Taxing and Budgeting Worksheet.
  3. Allow the students or groups of students sufficient time to fill out the exercise, perhaps 5-10 minutes.
  4. (Optional, depending on number of groups/students): have the students report their guesses to the group.
  5. Provide each group with “The Federal Budget in 2019: CBO Data” and allow them a few minutes to compare the two and answer the questions at the end.
  6. At the end of the activity, facilitate a class discussion, allowing the students to lead with questions or comments. You may then want to use the questions from the handout as prompts:
    • How did your guesses compare to the CBO reports? 
    • Were there areas of spending that were much higher or lower than you expected? 
    • Were federal revenues (taxes) as a percentage of GDP higher or lower than you expected?
    • What surprised you about the federal budget?

Discussion Prompts

Below are two discussion prompts that can be used by teachers in a classroom setting. 

  • The first discussion prompt will be one that is designed to support students that are not really understanding the content in a way that would help them to answer the test question. 
  • The second discussion prompt will be one that is designed to further student understanding of the content by making real-world connections, including connections to current events and historical events.


The nation’s first experiment with an income tax came during the Civil War, when Congress approved and President Lincoln signed a bill creating one. Congress repealed the tax after the war, but briefly restored an income tax in 1894 before the Court blocked it. The Sixteenth Amendment, proposed in 1909 and ratified in 1913, clearly established the constitutionality of a federal income tax. 

Prompt 1

What amendment created the federal income tax Americans pay? Why should we pay taxes? Do you know what is the last day you can send in federal income tax forms? 

Prompt 2

The Sixteenth Amendment authorized the federal government to lay taxes on income, giving it a variety of new sources of revenue. Without the authority to tax incomes, the federal government would have to collect much of its funds in different ways and from different sources; for example, state and local governments use combinations of property taxes, sales taxes, and income taxes. What are some ways that taxation would look different if the Sixteenth Amendment were not in place? How might this affect the federal government’s ability to pay for its expenditures? Do you think there are particular advantages or disadvantages to income taxes as opposed to other forms of taxation?