Tax Reform Under History’s Light | U.S. Chamber of Commerce
Sep 05, 2017 - 11:00am

Tax Reform Under History’s Light


Senior Vice President, Economic Policy Division, and Chief Economist

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Former Democratic Senator John Breaux
Former Democratic Senator John Breaux.

[This is part of an ongoing series entitled “The Case for Tax Reform,” which examines the importance of reforming the outdated tax code, and how achieving that goal will advance economic growth, jobs, and prosperity.]

Tax reform’s chances are better in this Congress than at any time in the past 30 years. Thus, comparisons come naturally to the events leading up to the 1986 Tax Reform Act (TRA86). These comparisons are useful for the similarities and the differences, both of which provide insights as to how to assure success today.

One important similarity is TRA86 brought to conclusion a long and detailed debate about tax policy. Our current efforts also rest on a lengthy debate recently brought to the fore. An important difference, however, is TRA86 was enacted as a widely accepted “should do,” whereas tax reform in 2017 is much more of a “must do.”

‘86 tax reform in 30 seconds

TRA86 culminated as a complex debate starting about 10 years prior with the release of Treasury’s “Blueprints for Basic Tax Reform” in the waning hours of the Ford administration. Treasury’s “Blueprints” laid out a coherent approach to tax policy, emphasizing simplification and a reduction in tax distortions that were sapping economic growth.

Two years later, in response to a poorly performing economy, Congress adopted the Steiger Amendment, significantly cutting the capital gains tax rate as part of the 1978 Revenue Act. While often ignored, the Steiger Amendment marked the bi-partisan recognition of tax policy’s importance for economic growth. Pro-growth tax reform was not just for tax geeks anymore.

Federal tax policy debate took on new energy in 1981 with the passage of the landmark Reagan tax cuts, dominated by substantial rate reduction. Following legislation in 1982 and 1984 to readjust tax levels, the stage was set for fundamental tax reform.

A bipartisan consensus regarding sound tax policy evolved through the years leading up to TRA86. This consensus distilled down to the simple mantra of “lower the rates, broaden the base.”  Like the 1981 legislation, TRA86 would reduce tax rates substantially and install a less punitive system of capital consumption allowances. Unlike the 1981 legislation, however, the focus would also be on simplification, on the wide range of areas of the tax code reformed, and especially on revenue neutrality.

This consensus first took concrete form in two highly-detailed proposals out the Reagan Treasury Department, commonly dubbed Treasury I and its improved version, Treasury II, and released in 1984 and 1985 respectively. With these reports laying the groundwork, Congress then took over a year to legislate, finally producing TRA86.

The years between

TRA86 was the product of an extended period of consensus building and analysis. For those new to the debate, today’s strong momentum for comprehensive, pro-growth tax reform may seem to have arisen out of thin air, but, in fact, this debate has ebbed and flowed almost without pause since 1986.

The appetite for tax reform did not die following TRA86, and so consideration naturally moved on to the “next big thing.” For a period, the big thing seemed to be some kind of European-style Value Added Tax (VAT). The VAT momentum quickly petered out, however, and soon revenue pressures shifted the focus of tax policy once again to raising income tax rates, often with distinct “soak-the-rich” overtones. The VAT episode set tax reform’s pattern of ebb and flow for the following years.

Even as the debate toward TRA86 was underway, a very different approach to tax policy appeared in the Hall-Rabushka Flat Tax. Though the Flat Tax is best known for having a single rate of tax, hence the name, what really distinguishes the Flat Tax is its simplification, the elimination of all taxes on capital income and capital gains, and the adoption of a cash-flow tax on businesses centered on allowing capital purchases to be “expensed,” or deducted immediately.

In the 1990s, as the Flat Tax gained greater acceptance, tax reform topped the national agenda with Steve Forbes leading the charge. But this effort soon deflated along with Forbes’ 1996 presidential campaign.

Tax reform again gained traction briefly after the 2004 election with the release of the superb report of the presidential commission led by former Democratic Senator John Breaux and former Republican Senator Connie Mack. However, this effort, too, led to naught, a victim of competing priorities and a lack of consensus.

Income tax reform was pushed far onto the back burners during President Barack Obama’s tenure. Despite a historically weak economic recovery, the Obama administration expressed little interest in proposals to reduce the tax code’s drag on growth. The Obama administration contented itself with modest tweaks at the edges and otherwise dedicated its efforts to defending the status quo, especially in the area of international tax where global pressures were felt most profoundly.

Tax reform today

Even as years of inaction passed, pressure to reform the federal income tax code rose steadily from all sides. In part, this pressure arose because the U.S. economy was changing rapidly, and the tax code became an ever-worse fit for a modern economy.

In part, the pressure arose because even as America stood pat, America’s major trading partners did not. They were cutting business tax rates steadily and almost all were moving toward a territorial tax system to allow their businesses to compete more effectively in a global business climate of increasing intensity.

Though on the back burner, tax reform continued to simmer in backchannels. Then-House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) advanced a series of thoughtful tax reform proposals as part of his broader efforts to reform Federal tax policy. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) offered his variation on tax reform, differing from but along the same broad lines as the Ryan proposal. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) also introduced a major, comprehensive tax reform proposal with his own interpretations, and then released subsequent iterations as comments and critiques soon followed. In these years, though President Obama continued to block tax reform’s path, the debate remained alive and well.

In 2014, former Ways and Means Committee Chairman David Camp (R-MI) introduced a detailed tax reform proposal. As tax reform would originate in this committee, Camp’s proposal took on greater significance than most. The Camp proposal was intended to serve as a prototype for tax legislation and so offered much more detail and, in some cases, specific options for resolving some of the nagging technical issues in adopting a territorial tax system, for example. However, in the face of President Obama’s determined disinterest, few were willing to contemplate seriously the hard choices the Camp plan laid out and so, again, tax reform was left to simmer on the back burner.

Tax reform played a limited role in the 2016 presidential campaign, with the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, largely continuing the defense of the status quo established by President Obama. Meanwhile, the Republican nominee, Donald Trump, suggested a bold change of direction; though, he accompanied it by very few details. Trump’s election, combined with the strong Republican interest in tax reform, quickly moved the issue to the front burner.

The focus on growth

Tax reform today, like its 1986 predecessor, has a long history of debate, evolution, and refinement. TRA86 and the current effort also share an intense focus on improving economic growth, but with one important difference: TRA86 largely responded to a sense borne of the previous, deep recession that the economy needed to be both stronger and more resilient, and that sound tax policy could help. Tax reform was seen as something Congress and the president could and should accomplish.

Tax reform today shares a similar motivation, but with far greater urgency. Just as no business can compete for long if its cost structure substantially exceeds those of its competitors, American businesses cannot continue to compete effectively at home or abroad facing high tax rates, an inadequate capital cost recovery system, and an international tax system long abandoned by competing companies.

American companies are managing to compete successfully today but with ever greater difficulty under the federal tax system. Failure to reform the tax system would not result overnight in significant decline in Americans’ long-run economic prospects. But it would most assuredly do so over the next few years as both financial and human capital is driven overseas.

Tax reform is one task Congress and the president simply have to get right if America is to prosper.

Read Part 1: What History Teaches Us About Tax Reform

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About the Author

About the Author

Senior Vice President, Economic Policy Division, and Chief Economist

Dr. J.D. Foster is senior vice president, Economic Policy Division, and chief economist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He explores and explains developments in the U.S. and global economies.