Ten years ago today, the wealthiest Americans caught a multi-billion dollar break from their benefactor, then-president George W. Bush. In the decade since, through two wars, natural disasters, a plummeting economy and a soaring debt, the wealthiest Americans have gotten to keep those Bush tax cuts. Happy birthday, everybody!
As the Republican Party now lines itself up behind Rep. Paul Ryan on his mission to cut the resulting deficit on the backs of working people and the elderly, I find myself surprisingly and strangely nostalgic for another GOP hero, whose legacy, at least when it comes to taxes, has become woefully misunderstood. Can it be that I find myself nostalgic for Ronald Reagan?!
Of course, I'm not alone in my nostalgia. I'm joined by the entire Republican leadership in this, but I think our reasons may be quite a bit different. In the spirit of unity, I'd like to suggest to Republicans in Congress that they look closely at the record of their favorite 20th century hero and adopt yet another policy named after the Gipper. I'm no fan of much of President Reagan's legacy, but in a new spirit of bipartisanship, and historical accuracy, I'd like to present Republicans in Congress with an idea: the Ronald Reagan Tax Reform Act of 2011.
A key element of the Reagan lore believed by today's GOP is that Reagan's embrace of "trickle-down economics" is what caused any and all economic growth since the 1980s. In fact, after Reagan implemented his initial tax-slashing plan in 1981, the federal budget deficit started to rapidly balloon. Reagan and his economic advisers were forced to scramble and raised corporate taxes to calm the deficit expansion and stop the economy from spiraling downward. Between 1982 and 1984, Reagan implemented four tax hikes. In 1986, his Tax Reform Act imposed the largest corporate tax increase in U.S. history. The GDP growth and higher tax revenues enjoyed in the later years of the Reagan presidency were in part because of his willingness to compromise on his early supply-side idolatry.
The corporate tax increases that Reagan implemented -- under the more palatable guise of "tax reform" -- bear another lesson for Republicans. The vast majority of the current Republican Congress has signed on to a pledge peddled by anti-tax purist Grover Norquist, which beholds them to not raise any income taxes by any amount under any circumstances, or to bring in new revenue by closing loopholes. This pledge, which Rep. Ryan's budget loyally adheres to, in effect freezes tax policy in time -- preserving not only Bush's massive and supposedly temporary tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, but also a vast mishmash of tax breaks and loopholes for specific industries won by well-funded lobbyists.
The problem has become so great that many giant American corporations have become so adept at exploiting loopholes in the tax code that they paid no federal income taxes at all last year -- if Republicans in Congress follow their pledge to Norquist, they won't be able to close a single one of the loopholes that are allowing corporations to avoid paying their fair share.
Even Reagan recognized the difference between just plain raising taxes and simplifying the tax code to cut out loopholes that subsidize corporations. In 1984, he arranged to bring in $50 billion over three years, mainly by closing these loopholes. His 1986 reform act not only included $120 billion in tax hikes for corporations over five years, it also closed $300 billion worth of corporate loopholes.
These kinds of tax simplification solutions are available for Congress if they want them. As I wrote in April, nixing Bush's tax cut's for the wealthiest Americans would help the country cut roughly $65 billion off the deficit in this year alone. Closing loopholes that allow corporations to shelter their income in foreign banks would bring in $6.9 billion. Eliminating the massive tax breaks now enjoyed by oil and gas companies would yield $2.6 billion to help pay the nation's bills.
But before Republicans in Congress change their math, they have to change their rhetoric -- and embrace the reality of the economic situation they face and the one that they'd like to think they're copying. In 1986, during the signing ceremony for the Tax Reform Act, Reagan explained that "vanishing loopholes and a minimum tax will mean that everybody and every corporation pay their fair share."
It's time for the GOP to take a page from their hero's playbook. If they do so, they might be able to find some allies that they never thought possible. It's time for "everybody and every corporation to pay their fair share." We can all get along. Sign me up for "The Reagan Tax Reform Act of 2011."