By April 15, the Internal Revenue Service estimates that 132 million individual income tax returns will be filed and that two trillion dollars will be collected for the US Treasury. But in protest of the federal government’s military expenditures, an estimated ten thousand people will not file their taxes or will deliberately withhold money from the IRS this year.
Glen Milner, an electrician and father of three in Seattle, Washington, files his taxes every year. His approach, however, is unusual. On the top of his 1040 form he writes in large print: “Some taxes withheld in protest of funds appropriated for illegal military purposes.”
“What I’m doing,” says Milner, “is telling the IRS right up front that somewhere in the form I’m withholding funds.” He doesn’t tell the agency where the missing funds are, but Milner has filed his taxes in this manner since 1985. A conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and an active proponent of US nuclear disarmament, Milner says he is putting his money “where his mouth is.” He cannot resist militarization and war and pay for it at the same time, he says.
The government spends over half of its annual budget on past, present and future military expenses, before even considering tens of billions in supplementary funding allocated by Congress for ongoing wars such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Antimilitarist tax resisters are fond of noting Principle IV of the Nuremberg Principles, drawn up to punish some individuals who committed crimes against humanity during the Second World War. “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior,” the Principle reads, “does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.” The moral choice for Milner is clear: withhold taxes from the government, in spite of the unpredictable risks.
A key component of serious war tax resistance is redirecting withheld federal tax dollars to humanitarian needs. The Conscience and Military Tax Campaign Escrow Account in Seattle is one of the largest such repositories in the country. A kind of charitable trust, interest from the account is granted on a yearly basis to nonprofit organizations dedicated to peace and justice. The beneficiaries have included Casa Maria Catholic Worker House in Milwaukee to help provide temporary housing to the homeless; the Columbia River Fellowship for Peace in Hood River, Oregon for counter-recruitment efforts; and the Palestine Solidarity Committee in Seattle, which runs informational programs about the Israel-Palestine conflict.
The escrow account, says organizer Eddie Tews, himself a tax resister, is also a good way for tax resisters to hide assets like cash or stocks from the IRS. “Say you owe the IRS at the end of the year,” explained Tews. “You set it aside and put it into our account. If the IRS ever decides to collect, the money will be available.”
Tews said the account was levied once in the 1980’s. “The IRS somehow found out and we were ordered to pay — which we didn’t do.”
The majority of tax resisters redirect federal income tax money independently, choosing to donate to a wide variety of local, national and international peace and justice organizations in critical need of financial support.
War tax resisters find a variety of ways to withhold money. Some resist phone taxes, others practice “W-4 resistance” by adding exemptions to their W-4 forms other than those they are legally entitled to. Others pay only a fraction of their taxes to reflect the portion of every dollar they perceive as committed by the government to military expenses. Still others simply live below the taxable income level.
The most common approach is phone tax resistance, which simply means deducting the 3 percent federal excise tax itemized on most telephone bills. The federal excise tax has been associated with war throughout most of its history. First imposed on toll calls in 1898 during the Spanish-American war era, it was removed in 1902. During World War I it was re-imposed as a temporary tax, and continued to tax telephone use in order to raise additional funds for wars from World War II through Vietnam. In 1990, the tax became permanent and was set at 3 percent.
Ruth Benn, with the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee, says Congress was close to disposing of the phone duty prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks. In 2000, at a time of budget surplus, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed HR 236, which would have repealed the 3 percent tax. The tariff survived, however, and now the government is so desperate for money, says Benn, that it will probably not be removed in the foreseeable future.
Many see withholding the phone tax as the least intimidating option for tax refusal because collection of delinquent dues is up to the IRS, not the phone company. Veteran tax resisters say the easiest way to refuse the phone tax is to write a letter of explanation to the phone company. Many companies, says Benn, have clear policies for war tax resisters.
Milner, the long-time 1040 tax resister, first began resisting war tax by not paying the federal excise tax on his phone bill. When he recently switched phone companies from Qwest to Tel West, Milner withheld the federal excise tax amount and wrote on his bill, “Federal tax withheld in protest of illegal military expenditures.” After internal discussions, Tel West decided to credit the amount Milner had deducted to his account and pay the excise tax owed to the IRS itself.
In an email to Milner, Kerry Myers, Tel West’s Manager of Financial Services wrote: “I have established this as the official Glen Milner policy! It was easier for me to make you federal excise tax exempt until we get our arms around how to handle [it] properly.” Myers explained that from a customer satisfaction perspective, it was easier to credit Milner’s account; especially since he is the company’s sole customer who withholds excise tax to protest military expenditures.
The IRS monitors what it calls “noncompliance,” but does not maintain a specific category of “war tax” withholding. In March the IRS issued a paper rebutting what it refers to as “frivolous arguments” for failure to pay taxes. These include arguments that the income tax is unconstitutional and that taxes may be withheld as a protest against government programs. War tax resistance would appear to fit this category.
Asked for comment, IRS media spokesperson, Eric Smith, referred The NewStandard to an IRS publication entitled, “The Truth About Frivolous Arguments.” Page 19 of the 56-page document reads: “Some argue that taxpayers may refuse to pay federal income taxes based on their religious or moral beliefs, or objection to the use of taxes to fund certain government programs. These persons mistakenly invoke the First Amendment in support of this frivolous position. The First Amendment does not provide a right to refuse to pay income taxes on religious or moral grounds, or because taxes are used to fund government programs opposed by the taxpayer.” The IRS then cites relevant case law supporting their position.
The consequences for war tax resistance are unpredictable, as are most direct actions for peace, says Milner. Criminal prosecution is possible, but in practice so rare that in most cases the risk is considered negligible. Since the modern war tax resistance movement began in the 1940s, less than 30 people have been jailed for resisting war taxes, the vast majority of them on convictions related to resistance such as refusing to provide records to the government and falsely filling out their W4 forms.
The more likely outcome is for the IRS to try collecting the tax owed through less coercive means. Those who file but refuse to pay will probably receive several tax-due notices and assessed penalties. Civil penalties may be added in the 5 to 25 percent range, plus compound interest at a rate of 10 percent. Eventually, the IRS will send a “Final Notice” letter that may take years to initiate more serious steps.
“They’re all meant to intimidate you,” said Tews, the Escrow account organizer, of the collection process.
Once the IRS issues a “final demand,” its power of collection includes garnishing wages, seizing bank accounts and, in reportedly rare instances, seizing cars and houses. The National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee’s website lists all of twelve tax resisters whose cars or houses were seized in the 1980s. Ruth Benn, member of the Committee, says the practice has become less and less common.
In Glen Milner’s 22 years of withholding taxes, the IRS has audited him twice, with no additional taxes owed. He has also seen his wages garnished once from his union employer, once had monies taken from his union vacation fund and once more from his bank account. Milner admits that he and his wife, Karol Milner, were “scared to death” when they first began withholding money on their 1040 form. He reasons, however, that in a “democratic” society such as the United States, individuals have the responsibility to check their government’s illegal actions, especially those connected to the war in Iraq and the nation’s massive arsenal of nuclear weapons.
On the other hand, some non-filers may go undetected for years. In 1994, Tews himself began practicing war tax resistance by refusing to pay the IRS hundreds of dollars annually. Every year, he says, the IRS demands payment by sending him a couple of letters, which he discards. In subsequent years Tews has avoided paying federal taxes altogether by practicing what he calls “W-4 resistance” or adding more exemptions than he’s legally entitled to.
Nevertheless, Tews says the IRS has never audited him. “If I consent to pay more taxes, then more bombs are dropped, more pollution is made and more lives are destroyed; and if I have to suffer some infinitesimal level of consequences as a result of my actions compared to the consequences suffered by other people as a result of [me] consenting to pay my taxes, well to me that’s — it’s not even worth talking about,” he said.
Tax resistance is not a highly publicized component of the peace movement. The National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee consists of a network of organizations and tax counseling services. There is a strong religious element, marked in part by the involvement of Quakers, Mennonites, and members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
A more recent affiliate is the Chicago-based Voices in the Wilderness. Founded in 1996 to end economic and military sanctions against the Iraqi people, the organization has since expanded its objectives and urges serious peace advocates to engage in tax resistance.
“The one thing that the US government wants from most average, ordinary people in regards to this war is our money,” says Kathy Kelly, one of the founders of Voices in the Wilderness. “From most of us, they don’t want our lives – we certainly think of those who are being enlisted – but the reality of what the government wants is people to pay for this war and not to ask a lot of questions about it.”
Kelly has been a war tax resister for most of her working life. She says she began by lowering her salary below the taxable income when she taught religion at a Jesuit school in Chicago. When she moved to one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods on the north side at the height of the arms race between the former Soviet Union and the US, Kelly says she could not talk religion and then turn around and pay for a weapons build-up that could destroy the planet.
“The contradiction was just too much,” she recalled. “I certainly couldn’t take money that my neighbors desperately needed for food, for housing, for a drop-in center, for an alternative school – for so many needs in this impoverished area. I couldn’t say well I don’t have funds because I’m going to put it into buying more weapons.”
She added, “I’m through with buying materials to kill people. Once you make that decision – if you really believe it – you can make it for a lifetime and then it’s possible to withhold all federal income tax.”
© 2005 The NewStandard.