Taxes: What people forget about Reagan

chart_reagan_taxes5.top.gif By Jeanne Sahadi, senior writer


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Those who oppose higher taxes and are fed up with record levels of U.S. debt may pine for Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of lower taxes and smaller government.

But it's worth considering just what Reagan did -- and didn't do -- as lawmakers grapple with many of the same issues that their 1980s counterparts faced: a deep recession, high deficits and a rip-roaring political divide over taxes.

Soon after taking office in 1981, Reagan signed into law one of the largest tax cuts in the postwar period.

That legislation -- phased in over three years -- pushed through a 23% across-the-board cut of individual income tax rates. It also called for tax brackets, the standard deduction and personal exemptions to be adjusted for inflation starting in 1984. That would reduce "bracket creep" since the high inflation of the 1970s and early 1980s meant incomes rose very fast, pushing taxpayers into ever higher brackets even though the real value of their income hadn't changed.

The 1981 bill also made certain business deductions more generous.

In 1986, Reagan lowered individual income tax rates again, this time in landmark tax reform legislation.

As a result of the 1981 and 1986 bills, the top income tax rate was slashed from 70% to 28%.

Despite the aggressive tax cutting, Reagan couldn't ignore the budget deficit, which was burgeoning.

After Reagan's first year in office, the annual deficit was 2.6% of gross domestic product. But it hit a high of 6% in 1983, stayed in the 5% range for the next three years, and fell to 3.1% by 1988. (By comparison, this year it's projected to be 9% but is expected to drop considerably thereafter.)

So, despite his public opposition to higher taxes, Reagan ended up signing off on several measures intended to raise more revenue.

"Reagan was certainly a tax cutter legislatively, emotionally and ideologically. But for a variety of political reasons, it was hard for him to ignore the cost of his tax cuts," said tax historian Joseph Thorndike.

Two bills passed in 1982 and 1984 together "constituted the biggest tax increase ever enacted during peacetime," Thorndike said.

The bills didn't raise more revenue by hiking individual income tax rates though. Instead they did it largely through making it tougher to evade taxes, and through "base broadening" -- that is, reducing various federal tax breaks and closing tax loopholes.

For instance, more asset sales became taxable and tax-advantaged contributions and benefits under pension plans were further limited.

"What people forget about Ronald Reagan was that he very much converted to base broadening as a means of reducing deficits and as a means of tax reform," said Eugene Steuerle, an Institute Fellow at the Urban Institute who had helped lay the groundwork for tax reform in 1986 and served as a deputy assistant Treasury secretary during Reagan's second term.

There were other notable tax increases under Reagan.

In 1983, for example, he signed off on Social Security reform legislation that, among other things, accelerated an increase in the payroll tax rate, required that higher-income beneficiaries pay income tax on part of their benefits, and required the self-employed to pay the full payroll tax rate, rather than just the portion normally paid by employees.

The tax reform of 1986, meanwhile, wasn't designed to increase federal tax revenue. But that didn't mean that no one's taxes went up. Because the reform bill eliminated or reduced many tax breaks and shelters, high-income tax filers who previously paid little ended up with bigger tax bills.

"Some of these taxpayers were substantial contributors to the Republican Party and to the president's re-election campaign, and had direct access to the White House. Reagan rebuffed their pleas," wrote J. Roger Mentz, the Treasury assistant secretary for tax policy in 1986, in a Tax Notes commentary last year.

All told, the tax increases Reagan approved ended up canceling out much of the reduction in tax revenue that resulted from his 1981 legislation.

Annual federal tax receipts during his presidency averaged 18.2% of GDP, a smidge below the average under President Carter -- and a smidge above the 40-year average today.

How might Reagan fare today?

Reagan's behavior might not pass muster with those voters today who insist their Congressmen treat every proposed tax increase as poisonous to the republic.

"By today's standards, the Gipper would easily qualify for status as a back-stabbing, treacherous RINO [Republican in Name Only]," wrote Tax Analysts contributing editor Martin Sullivan, in an article for Tax Notes in May.

Thanks in part to the increases in defense spending during his administration, Reagan also didn't really reduce the size of government. Annual spending averaged 22.4% of GDP on his watch, which is above today's 40-year average of 20.7%, and above the 20.8% average under Carter.

Indeed, in one very symbolic respect he enlarged it. While in the early years of his presidency Reagan tried to shrink the IRS, by the end, the number of IRS employees hit an all-time high, according to Steuerle in his book Contemporary U.S. Tax Policy.

The reason was two-fold, Steuerle said. The first was a desire to crack down on the proliferation of tax shelters. But the point of cracking down was to boost tax revenue. That, in turn, could reduce the need to impose other tax increases to combat budget deficits. To top of page

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