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Republicans in Congress are attempting to overhaul the nation’s tax code, but it’s not an easy task. The last major tax reform was passed a generation ago, and Congress has struggled with thorny tax debates ever since.
With the current tax overhaul effort in mind, we thought it’s a good time to look at the United States’ history with taxes, especially income taxes.
Of course, the nation’s founding was fueled — in part — by outrage over taxes. And for the country’s first 123 years, the federal government resisted creating income taxes, by getting most of its funding from other sources of income, like tariffs.
But as the Civil War raged on, President Abraham Lincoln needed more revenue (a lot more revenue) to keep the Union Army funded. Lincoln pushed the first income tax through Congress in 1862, taxing incomes over $500 at 3 percent. Incomes over $10,000 were taxed at 5 percent.
The fight to cut those taxes began almost immediately. Congress decreased the income tax in 1867, and repealed it entirely in 1872. The idea of creating a tax was revived more than a decade later, but it was dismissed by the Supreme Court in 1895. (In the 5-4 decision, the court ruled that it was unconstitutional for the federal government to levy a “direct tax” on property without apportioning the revenue by population, among the states).
So how did the personal income tax make a comeback? In 1913, Congress ratified the 16th amendment, which allowed lawmakers to impose a federal income tax.
That year, the income tax was low — just 1 percent for incomes between $3,000 and $500,000. But as World War I continued, rates increased dramatically to a top level of 90 percent. They remained at similar levels for top income brackets through World War II and into the 1960s, when President John F. Kennedy took office.
President Ronald Reagan speaks at an event at the White House in 1986, the year Congress passed a comprehensive tax overhaul. File photo by Diana Walker/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Kennedy was the first president to aggressively push for tax cuts. In a 1962 speech to the Economic Club of New York, Kennedy said he wanted “an across-the-board, top-to-bottom” tax cut. Shortly after his death, the cuts went into effect.
Since Kennedy, we’ve seen sizable tax cuts at least once every 20 years under Presidents Reagan, George W. Bush and Obama.
Reagan’s actions had the greatest impact. His tax bill in 1986 not only cut tax rates, it also consolidated brackets and simplified the tax code. It was true tax reform.
READ MORE: Can tax reform save Trump’s legislative agenda?
Republicans are now hoping for the same transformative tax overhaul — a real, comprehensive reform that has only happened once in the U.S. in more than two centuries. And that 1986 tax reform was only able to pass because it received broad support from lawmakers in both parties (though of course some members of both parties opposed it as well).
A major tax reform today could also require bipartisan cooperation, unless Republicans can work the legislative process to pass a bill without any Democratic support. That reality could make it much harder to pass tax reform now than under Reagan 31 years ago, though some Republicans and administration officials remain confident. On Tuesday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he was optimistic a tax reform bill would pass by the end of the year.
But if sweeping tax reform doesn’t happen this year, history offers a clear lesson. Republicans could try for something less complicated: a tax cut that doesn’t include significant changes to the overall tax code. The next few months of negotiations on Capitol Hill will determine which direction the GOP takes.
Lisa Desjardins is a correspondent for PBS NewsHour, where she covers news from the U.S. Capitol while also traveling across the country to report on how decisions in Washington affect people where they live and work.
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