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First Congress passes first ‘sin tax’
March 2, 2015
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by Ivan Raconteur

This week marks a bittersweet time in US history.

The first meeting of the new Congress under the US Constitution was convened March 4, 1789 in New York City.

The first US Congress, consisting of the US Senate and House of Representatives, met in three sessions between March 4, 1789 and March 4, 1791.

Congress initially met at Federal Hall in New York City, and later met at Congress Hall in Philadelphia.

This Congress passed the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, which are now known as the Bill of Rights.

No doubt this was an exciting time in the nation’s history.

The country was embarking on a new adventure. The fragile union had survived the Revolutionary War and all the challenges involved in bringing diverse, fiercely independent people together for the common good.

Congress, and the country, have grown considerably since those early days.

However, some things have remained the same.

Many citizens of the young country had a healthy distrust of government. We would be wise to follow their excellent example, and view the actions (and inactions) of government with a certain amount of careful scrutiny.

I wonder what our founding fathers would make of Congress today.

There has always been a degree of lively chicanery in government.

Part of the problem is that government has become so large, it is very difficult to keep track of what government is doing.

It seems that, in order to get elected today, a person has to have a vast personal fortune, as well as the backing of special interest groups.

We have come a long way from government “ ... of the people, by the people, and for the people ... ”

It is not only our elected officials we need to worry about.

Government has become so massive it is like a black hole, sucking up energy and resources.

There are so many branches, departments, agencies, and committees, even the people running the government don’t know what government is up to.

There must have been at least some optimism when the first Congress convened in early March 1789, but it is difficult to be optimistic today.

It seems our elected officials are more interested in fighting one another and supporting party platforms than they are in addressing the needs of their constituents.

Even if by some fluke an honest person with good intentions slips through the cracks and manages to get himself elected, the system is stacked against anyone who would try to make changes.

Government has become so huge that trying to make any meaningful change is a bit like trying to put out a forest fire by spitting on it.

It seems to me that the original intent was that people would be elected to serve their peers, do the best they could for a brief period, and then go back to home and let someone else take a turn.

Today, the chief goal of too many members of Congress seems to be to hang on to their seat for life.

Change is not a priority for these people. In fact, resisting change is in their best interest.

Sadly, the best interest of their constituents doesn’t get much attention.

There are bound to be a few who are working hard and doing their best for the country, not for some special interest group.

Unfortunately, the bigger the government gets, and the further removed elected officials are from their constituents, the more difficult the job becomes.

It is relatively easy for a citizen to bring a concern to the attention of a member of the local city council or county board, but the process becomes more difficult the larger the unit of government becomes.

This week also marks another dark day in the country’s history, the ratification of the Whiskey Act, March 3, 1791.

This legislation has the dubious distinction of being the first excise tax levied by the new government on a domestic product (distilled spirits).

The tax led to the Whiskey Rebellion, fueled by veterans who had fought against taxation without local representation. The act was repealed in 1801.

The Whiskey Act was an early example of a “sin tax,” which refers to a method of raising revenue that remains wildly popular with the government to this day.

The concept is simple. Find something the citizens enjoy, and exploit it.

I’m not sure if I should celebrate these anniversaries, or drown my sorrows with a refreshing adult beverage. In either case, it seems certain government will continue to grow and flourish.


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