J.D. Foster J.D. Foster
Former Senior Vice President, Economic Policy Division, and Former Chief Economist


August 30, 2017


[This is part of an ongoing series entitled “The Case for Tax Reform,” which examines the importance of reforming the outdated tax code, and how achieving that goal will advance economic growth, jobs, and prosperity.]

An underperforming economy and mounting international competition have propelled tax reform from topic of discussion to front-burner issue. There is no change in federal policy that offers greater potential to strengthen employment and increase wages for American workers than sound, comprehensive tax reform.

Reviewing and respecting the lessons from the last major tax reform over thirty years ago illuminates the road ahead, and provides lessons for how to raise our odds of success. Time provides a dimension worth exploring for similarities and contrasts between 1986 and today. Specifically, the time leading up to the effort, and the time needed for Congress to act.

The Historical On Ramp to Tax Reform

President John F. Kennedy understood the dampening economic effects of high tax rates. Though he died before seeing his program enacted, his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson pushed the program through Congress and thus the 1964 tax bill is commonly referred to as the “Kennedy tax cuts.” The 1964 bill centered on significant tax rate reductions to achieve a substantially stronger economy.

Thereafter, budget pressures from the Vietnam War and Great Society programs reoriented tax policy once again toward ever-higher tax rates accompanied by a steady accretion of deductions and credits to blunt the effects of higher rates on politically favored constituencies. This process continued unabated into President Jimmy Carter’s administration and not surprisingly coinciding with a languishing economy.

Even as tax rates climbed and new distortions filled the tax code, a countermovement arose. In the final moments of the Ford Administration, Secretary William E. Simon released a landmark Treasury report directed by one of the era’s great economists, David Bradford, called “Blueprints for Basic Tax Reform,” guiding concepts of sound tax policy for years to come.

As the economy struggled and President Carter stood by, Congress took the initiative. With strong, bipartisan support over Carter’s objections, Congress substantially cut the capital gains tax rate as part of the 1978 Revenue Act, marking the first step in a change in tax philosophy culminating in the 1986 Tax Reform Act (TRA86).

Senator Bill Roth (R-DE) and Congressman Jack Kemp (R-NY) then picked up tax reform’s guidon, leading the charge for lower tax rates. At the same time, a second dimension in tax policy gained steam – the need for a less punitive capital cost recovery system. This debate was led largely outside Congress by the likes of Charls Walker and Ernie Christian, former Ford Administration Treasury hands, and Norman B. Ture, later Treasury undersecretary under Ronald Reagan.

Spurred by a recession wrought by a disinflationary monetary policy, the tax debate quickly came to a head in the 1981 “Reagan tax cuts.” The 1981 bill cut tax rates and instituted a vastly superior capital cost recovery system among other reforms. In the process, the bill cut revenues far more than Reagan proposed.

Though the 1981 bill was championed by a Republican president, it enjoyed widespread Democratic support. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-IL), Chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means introduced and pushed the legislation to passage, joined by almost half the House Democrats and almost a third of Senate Democrats.

The magnitude of the 1981 tax cuts proved politically unsustainable and were quickly followed by a series of tax hikes reversing some of the 1981 revenue reductions. Having settled the issue of how much to tax, the stage was now set for the 1986 reform and deciding who and how to tax.

Building Toward the 1986 Tax Reform Act

At about this time a fundamentally different approach to tax policy appeared: the Hall-Rabushka Flat Tax. The Flat Tax’s popularity often associates with the simplicity of imposing a single tax rate. However, the real revolution it offered was not the single tax rate,but what is subject to tax. Despite appearing as a traditional income tax, the Flat Tax was something quite new as it explicitly eliminated tax on investment income and imposed a simple cash flow tax on all businesses, thus adopting the principle of expensing, or allowing a full and immediate deduction for capital purchases.

The Flat Tax was too radical to gain wide acceptance in the early 1980s, but a vigorous bipartisan debate harkening back to Bradford’s 1976 “Blueprints” continued nonetheless. The 1981 tax cuts worked as intended to launch a powerful economic recovery, but memories of poor economic performance under Carter still lingered. A broad, bipartisan consensus championed faster economic growth by reforming the tax code to reduce the distortions to economic decision making it caused and the resulting misallocation of basic resources.

The basic strategy was to lower rates as in the 1981 Act, only further, and to implement a sound cost recovery system as in the 1981 Act. In contrast to 1981, however, the new strategy included a determined effort to “broaden the tax base” by eliminating distorting loopholes and tax credits, thereby intending the overall bill to be revenue neutral. .

The Treasury Department under Secretary Don Regan took the first big step in 1984 with the release of a densely packed 275 page proposal for comprehensive tax reform, dubbed “Treasury I”. While many aspects were well-received, as with most prototypes, Treasury I contained flaws, some of which Treasury addressed in 1985 with “Treasury II”.

Tax reform was off and running in Congress with the release of Treasury II, but the road was by no means easy. Time and again Reagan had to give Congress another not-always-gentle push. The greatest peril demanding Reagan’s firm hand came when Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bob Packwood (R-OR) realized he couldn’t pass tax reform on the path it was on. Ironically, the man who had repeatedly saved tax reform, President Reagan, was also now tax reform’s biggest obstacle.

The Price for Overcoming the Greatest Hurdle

Reagan was forced into pushing for the most rate reduction possible. Initially he drew the line at 25 percent for individuals and he held firm for much of the debate. Like most policy, tax reform involves trade-offs and Packwood just couldn’t find enough obvious base broadeners he could economically or politically trade off to hit a 25 percent rate.

Something had to give. At first the rate crept up to 26 and then to 28 percent. But at 28 percent, Reagan would go no further.

As Reagan urged Packwood to press on, Packwood had to get creative. He took fairly innocuous existing individual and corporate minimum taxes and expanded them into full-fledged parallel tax systems; voila, massive back-door base broadening. Packwood’s new Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), while a superb example of terrible tax policy, had as its one redeeming feature: it raised enough money in a sufficiently confusing manner to hit the 28 percent rate without creating too many political problems, at least not for the duration of the debate. Three months later, the final bill passed the Senate.

Packwood’s AMT offers an important lesson for tax reform today. As important as low tax rates are for economic growth, policy makers and the public need to be honest about the tradeoffs involved. The broadest possible tax base capable of garnering sufficient political support can only raise so much revenue at a targeted tax rate. Demand an even lower tax rate and something (or someone) else will have to give and very likely pro-growth tax policy will suffer as a consequence.

Back to the Present

With respect to time, the current tax reform debate parallels that of 1986 closely. TRA86 concluded a lengthy, evolutionary process regarding accepted beliefs about sound, pro-growth tax policy. That process distilled to the lowest possible rates and applied to a simple, broad tax base, while allowing for a depreciation system for capital costs minimizing the anti-investment aspects of an income tax.

Tax reform today shares these traits, both with respect to the substance of reform – low rates, broad base, and today, expensing – and with respect to time. Like the 1986 episode, tax reform today reflects the product of many years of debate regarding the design of pro-growth tax policy, an evolution that began in 1986.

In one other critical respect regarding time, TRA86 and the current effort offer stark contrasts. Where the legislative starting gun on TRA86 went off in 1984 and the effort then proceeded for over two years, Congress in 2017 will have only a handful of months from introduction to tax reform’s final passage. This difference in time will have significant implications for how Congress defines “comprehensive” as they work toward pro-growth tax reform.

Read Part 2: Tax Reform Under History’s Light

About the authors

J.D. Foster

J.D. Foster

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