Neil McCabe

When President George H. W. Bush raised taxes in the 1990 budget deal, it not only meant breaking his “Read my lips” promise with the American people. It was also from that time forward that conservatives in Congress have opposed any and all tax increases.

But in 1990, most of the Internet did not have pictures and online retail was whatever forum was hot on CompuServe.

Now online commerce is the dominant force in retail—and while downtown or mall customers pay state sales taxes, online shoppers get off scot free.

There is now a major bill working its way through Capitol Hill known as the "Marketplace Equity Act" that has conservatives divided and debating amongst themselves whether to leave this disparity alone or to fix it—and will fixing it mean raising taxes.

The legislation, introduced by Rep. Steven A. Womack (R.-Ark.) offers one road forward, he said.

The bill would require remote retailers, except for smaller businesses exempted, to collect the state sales tax and send it in the same routine way businesses located in the state do, he said.

“Currently, as I trust most of you now understand, traditional retailers—I’ll refer to them as “brick and mortar” retailers—collect sales taxes on purchases made in their respective stores,” said the congressman in his July 27 testimony in favor of his bill.

“These taxes are remitted to the political subdivisions who levy them—typically by the state department of finance and administration. This is not an option for the retailer. It is a requirement,” he said.

Because of the Supreme Court’s 1992 Quill decision, there is no such burden on the sellers with no physical presence in a locality to collect that locality’s sales tax, he said. In its decision, the court directed Congress to devise a remedy, but two decades later nothing has been done.

“It is time this loophole is closed. Our bill, HR 3179, is purposed in doing just that. It is simple and straight-forward. It is not instructive—it is permissive legislation, just like the Quill Decision invited us to do,” said the former mayor of Rogers, Ark..

A bookstore on Main Street collects and remits the tax. Amazon.com does not.

Womack and his supporters argue that creates a disparity that encourages people to do their shopping online -- hurting traditional small businesses.

But, the thing Womack is most adamant about it that this is not a new tax, it is a more thorough collection of an existing tax.


Neil McCabe

Neil W. McCabe is a journalist working in Washington. He was a senior reporter for the Human Events newspaper and for many years a reporter for The Pilot, Boston's Catholic paper. In 2009, he deployed to Iraq with the Army as a combat historian for 15 months.