The Republican platform of 1908 supported a downward reform of the tariff. For this purpose, President Taft called Congress into special session. Sereno E. Payne, a Republican congressman from New York, sponsored a tariff bill that called for several reduced rates, which the House swiftly passed. The Senate responded with a bill authored by Nelson W. Aldrich, a Republican multi-millionaire from Rhode Island, that effected fewer downward revisions and stepped up many rates.
Aldrich had anticipated rapid approval of his measure, but Robert M. La Follette mounted a lengthy examination of the bill's exceedingly complex wording. To the dismay of Aldrich and other conservatives, the public learned of the protectionist nature of the proposal.
Following this assault, a compromise bill was adopted that moderated the bill's high rates. Taft immediately signed the measure.
This act was the first modification of tariff laws since the Dingley Tariff of 1897, which it replaced. President Theodore Roosevelt had simply avoided the issue during his tenure. The act lowered the general tariff rate from 46 to 41 percent while it increased rates on items such as animal hides, iron ore and coal. It lowered 650 tariff items, raised 220 and left 1,150 untouched.
Taft came to the act's defense against Democratic and progressive Republican charges that it was a token measure offering precious little relief from the conservative Republicans' protectionist tactics. In fact, the new bill made only very small changes in the law and many reformers had expected Taft to veto it.
A disappointed Taft thought it was nevertheless better than the previous tariff. Therefore, he signed the Tariff of 1909 into law. But the president drew the ire of many by commending the act as "the best tariff bill the Republican Party ever passed."
Although the Payne-Aldrich Tariff was less protectionist than the McKinley Tariff (1890) and the later Dingley Tariff, it was still protectionist. It remained in effect until the Underwood Tariff of 1913.
The struggle over Payne-Aldrich clearly identified the growing fissures within the Republican Party. The progressive or insurgent element was growing away from the G.O.P. Old Guard.
What is a tariff? Also see tariff table summary.