How America's Vision of Progressive Tax Reform Died

Only by reclaiming an earlier ideal will Congress be able to counteract the influence of corporations and the affluent.

A woman holds a sign during demonstrations as U.S. President Donald Trump delivers a speech on tax reform.
A woman holds a sign during demonstrations as President Trump delivers a speech on tax reform in Indianapolis, Indiana, on September 27, 2017.  (Bryan Woolston / Reuters)

After his losing effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, President Trump is now moving on to “tax reform.” On Wednesday, he unveiled the outlines of his fiscal package, which will include slashing the corporate income tax rate from 35 to 20 percent, lower the top income tax rate from 39.6 to 35 percent, doubling the standard deduction for individual taxpayer, and increasing the lowest rate from 10 to 12 percent. The plan will include some loophole-closing reforms, though the details of the package are not yet clear. Trump was blunt about his rhetorical strategy at a meeting with evangelical leaders, when he reportedly said that talking about “tax reform” was a smarter strategy for communicating about the initiative than talking about “tax cuts.”

Trump’s definition of tax reform reveals how much has changed in recent decades. Tax reform once meant raising tax rates on wealthier Americans and closing loopholes that benefited powerful economic interests, all with the goal of redistributing income from the top to the middle and bottom income brackets. Until the 1980s, a progressive tax system was seen as the best mechanism for diminishing the gap that existed between the wealthiest and poorest Americans, while funding a social safety net to shore up the middle class and fund the military.

Today, even most of the president’s opponents on Capitol Hill will probably not push back against Trump’s proposal by calling for the kind of robust tax-reform agenda that had once been sine qua non for American liberalism.

Before 1913, the United States didn’t even have a progressive income tax at the federal level. In times of peace, the government derived most of its income from mechanisms that fell hardest on working Americans, like consumption taxes and tariffs.

During the early 1900s, populist and progressive reformers embraced the idea of a progressive income tax as one of the most important reforms that would create a just society. In 1913, the government finally established a federal income tax with the ratification of the 16th Amendment. The tax only impacted about 1 percent of the nation, but it was still a major victory for progressive forces. The estate tax, established in 1916, was also meant to recast the tax burden toward the well-off.

During World War II, President Roosevelt and the Democrats vastly expanded the tax by increasing the number of people subject to the system and instituting the policy of withholding to make collection speedier and more efficient. There were other moves in the 20th century to make federal taxes more progressive. During World War I, Congress enacted an excess-profits tax that put into place a graduated tax on profits made by businesses above the “normal” rate of return. During the Great Depression, Roosevelt responded to Senator Huey Long’s “Share Our Wealth” campaign—which criticized him for still relying too heavily on regressive consumption taxes—by calling on Congress to tax wealth at higher rates to curb “entrenched greed.” During his address introducing the plan, Roosevelt proclaimed that “great accumulations of wealth cannot be justified on the basis of personal and family security” in a speech that left one corporate lawyer “frothing at the mouth.” Congress passed a “wealth tax” through the Revenue Act of 1935 that affected the highest incomes and estates. In 1936, Congress passed an undistributed corporate-profits tax.

Under Roosevelt, the Justice Department also cracked down on tax evasion, including a high-profile (though unsuccessful) effort to prosecute former Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon for failing to pay $3 million in taxes. “I consider that Mr. Mellon is not on trial but Democracy and the privileged rich and I want to see who will win,” said Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgenthau, who was behind the effort. The tax historian Elliot Brownlee showed that New Deal tax measures raised the effective rate on the top 1 percent of Americans to 15.7 percent in 1937 from 6.8 percent in 1932. To finance World War II, Roosevelt initially pushed for a pretty radical tax agenda that would fall hardest on the wealthiest. But by then, the backlash from the business community had set in, and much of FDR’s boldest initiatives fell to defeat. He settled for another excess profits tax that didn’t accomplish his initial ambitions.

But progressive tax reform enjoyed a second life in the 1960s when Democrats focused their energy on the fight to close the loopholes that allowed wealthier Americans and business interests to escape their obligations. Loophole-closing reform became a regular demand in Democratic platforms. One of the gurus behind progressive tax reform in the 1960s was a man named Stanley Surrey, an unassuming Harvard-educated lawyer who worked high up in the Department of Treasury under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Surrey popularized the idea of “tax expenditures” to show just how significant the impact was of these provisions that were normally hidden from public view. According to Surrey, the federal government was actually spending money through the tax code by offering assistance to industries and encouraging private capital investment.

One of the most notorious expenditures was the oil-depletion allowance, which allowed industry officials to write off the costs of exploration. Unlike direct budget expenditures, such as federal welfare, the tax expenditures never had to be reauthorized nor did the public even know what most of them were. The abstruse world of tax lawyers, accountants, lobbyists, and congressional tax-writing committees carved these provisions into the tax code where they became a permanent fixture. Surrey and his team of legal eagles promoted this idea through a series of studies and books that showed just how vast this spending was.

The United States might have been a laggard on health care and anti-poverty initiatives, but Surrey revealed that the government did pretty well when it came to subsidizing better-off Americans through the tax code. This second wave of progressive tax reformers never achieved the same legislative success as their predecessors earlier in the century who created the tax code. Surrey’s studies helped to produce tax-reform legislation in 1969, though it was far short of the housecleaning he hoped for. Democrats clung on to the goal of eliminating tax expenditures as part of their agenda in the 1970s. Young Turks in Congress eliminated the oil depletion allowance in 1975 as part of their reforms. In his 1980 concession speech at the Democratic Convention, Senator Ted Kennedy, fighting to keep the liberal tradition alive, said to his fervent supporters: “And to all those overburdened by an unfair tax structure, let us provide new hope for real tax reform. Instead of shutting down classrooms, let us shut off tax shelters. Instead of cutting out school lunches, let us cut off tax subsidies for expensive business lunches that are nothing more than food stamps for the rich.”

But this vision of tax reform died on the vine of the conservative revolution. There were two major sources of conservative opposition to the income-tax system, which were not always on the same page. The first stemmed from a deregulatory impulse that led conservative business figures and economists to see tax breaks and tax incentives as yet another inefficient regulatory policy that skewed economic activity. Just put in one flat rate, they said, and then let the market make decisions about where money should be invested. The second source of opposition grew out of a broader animus to the notion of progressivity itself. Tax activists like Grover Norquist worked hard to bring these two strains of thought together, but they were following the lead of Ronald Reagan who rocked Washington’s tax policy status quo when he entered the Oval Office in January 1981.

During the 1980s, one of the most consequential changes was the struggle by President Reagan and the warriors of the right to undercut the belief in the progressive tax system. Reagan, who said that the system came “direct from Karl Marx,” pushed through Congress a historic reduction in corporate and individual tax rates in 1981.The Economic Recovery Act of 1981 provided the biggest benefits to wealthier Americans based on the theory of supply-side economics, which stipulated the money saved by the private sector would be reinvested and ultimately bring economic reward for all.

Five years later, Reagan would surprise many observers when he decided to work with congressional Democrats on a tax-reform package that would include some of the most sweeping loophole closing reforms until that time. Part of his interest stemmed from conservative arguments that tax incentives were inefficient and distorted market behavior. But another part of the reason Reagan went along with the legislation was that in order to win support from the Republican Senate, Democrats agreed to reduce the personal and corporate income tax rates to historically low levels. While the deal allowed reformers to claim that the public interest had finally been victorious, the cost of this bargain was to lower the tax burden for wealthier Americans. Those rates never really recovered. At the same time, interest group-pressure quickly mounted. In response, Congress reopened the code to more loopholes in the decades that followed, all but erasing the reforms of 1986.

The conservative revolution had its effect in the 1980s. Reagan had discredited the idea of progressive income-tax reform that had animated Democratic politics for almost a century. Although Presidents Clinton and Obama were able to raise rates slightly as part of their deficit reduction plans in 1993 and 2010, their efforts were a far cry from the sweeping vision of reform that had resulted in the creation of the modern tax system. When politicians have proposed tax reform in recent years, the ideas have usually come from Republicans who want to replace the inefficient system of loopholes with a flat rate that will fall equally on all income brackets, or with fewer brackets at lower rates.

Equally important was the fact that the Democratic Party in the 1990s ran away from much of the robust economic vision that had defined the party since the progressive and New Deal eras. Many Democrats accepted some of the market-based premises of conservative politics, backing away from central parts of their core domestic agenda like progressive taxation and economic regulation. The growing power of corporate interest groups in Washington, which mobilized huge teams of lobbyists and threw around sizable campaign donations, made both parties less willing to hear demands for redistributive public policy. As Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson documented, the K Street Lobby closed the gap between Democrats and Republicans on economic policy, which in turn widened the gap between America’s rich and poor.

So it is not a surprise that when Trump talks about tax reform, the heart of his proposal revolves around cutting taxes for corporate America as well as upper-income Americans. What has been lost in American politics is a vision of public policy offering real mechanisms for reducing economic inequality and raising revenue on a fair basis. What has almost totally disappeared is political support for the kind of a progressive tax system that was in place during the most economically robust period in nation’s history—what we still call the American Century.

When Congress debates Trump’s plan in the coming weeks, it will be important for members concerned with rising inequality to look back to a period when tax reform meant something very different. Only by reclaiming that older vision will Congress be able to counteract the influence of corporations and the affluent that have been reshaping American politics for decades and making Franklin Roosevelt’s vision of a more equitable capitalism a vanishing memory.