Jan 04, 2016 - 3:30pm

30 Years, 1,500 Lawmakers, 165,000 Bills. Still No Major Tax Reform.

Executive Director, Strategic Communications


President Reagan
President Ronald Reagan signs the Tax Reform Act into law on Oct. 22, 1986.

In a year that many expected to be defined by partisan bickering and legislative stalemates, federal lawmakers actually got a lot done in 2015. Congress passed major education reform, approved the first long-term transportation funding measure in years, mended several issues with the health care law, and granted the president trade promotion authority, among other significant accomplishments.

One of the most important items still left on the table? Comprehensive tax reform.

While lawmakers took a big step forward by making permanent several important (but previously temporary) tax breaks at the end of the year, they have yet to take action on a broad, commonsense simplification of our nation’s tax code. This year marks the 30th since the United States enacted major tax reform, the latest overhaul coming in 1986 with President Ronald Reagan’s Tax Reform Act.

To put that in perspective, here’s what’s happened since the last major update to the tax code.

  • Since 1986, Congress has added more than 50,000 pages to the tax code, with the entire document now exceeding 74,000 pages.
  • More than 1,300 men and women have served in the House of Representatives, while 282 different senators have held office. Many of them have drafted and pushed for legislation that would simplify the tax code. None have succeeded.
  • The House and Senate have introduced 165,941 bills over that 30-year period. Congress approved 11,253 of them, 6,762 of which were eventually signed into law.
  • Among them were a handful of significant health care reform measures, starting with an attempted Medicare expansion in 1988, continuing with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and the Mental Health Parity Act in the mid-’90s, and culminating with President Barack Obama’s so-called Affordable Care Act in 2010.
  • Congress has also passed numerous immigration laws since 1986, including the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which President Reagan signed a month after the Tax Reform Act. Since then, lawmakers have enacted the Immigration Act in 1990, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act in 1996, and the REAL ID Act in 2005.
  • Congress more than a dozen times passed short-term renewals of what are known as tax extenders - including 16 temporary reauthorizations of an important research and development tax break - before finally making many of the provisions permanent earlier this month.
  • Since 1986, the United States has also entered into more than a dozen new free trade agreements, including pacts with Australia, Colombia, Chile, Panama, Morocco, Israel and Singapore, as well as the North American Free Trade Agreement that took effect in 1994.

Clearly, lawmakers have been busy since the last major update to the tax code - they just haven’t been able to tackle comprehensive tax reform. With Americans now spending more than 3 billion hours every year filing tax returns, and with businesses now spending upward of $4 billion in tax-related compliance costs annually (to say nothing of the actual taxes they owe), it’s imperative that Congress doesn’t let another year go by without modernizing America’s tax system.

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About the Author

About the Author

J.D. Harrison
Executive Director, Strategic Communications

J.D. Harrison is the Executive Director for Strategic Communications at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.