Friday, May 3, 2013
With income tax reform dominating so much of the current political discourse, now is an optimal time for tax scholars to reflect on the lessons and trends from a century of legislative tinkering with the primary revenue-generating device in the United States. Tax rate changes do not occur in a vacuum, and this article explores one increasingly prominent and often overlooked ingredient in the mixture of variables that can produce or inhibit tax reform ― partisan politics. It does so by comparing individual income tax rates with partisan control of federal political bodies. This article reviews majority party status in the House of Representatives and the Senate, and control of the presidency at times of revisions to top marginal tax rates applicable to various income groups, and notes larger rate trends in the parties’ respective eras of most significant influence. Despite the limitations inherent in isolating a single influential factor, the data analyzed in this article provides strong support for the following trends: higher income earners are the tax rate battleground for party policy implementation; a vast political mandate represented by control of the House, Senate, and presidency is usually necessary to accomplish significant rate revisions; when a sufficient political mandate is achieved, the parties’ implementation of rate changes follows their respective rhetorical associations; and in the end, absent armed conflict or economic crisis, sizeable rate changes are exceptionally rare. These extractions from a century of legislative maneuvers bring scholars closer to unearthing the political recipe for tax rate reform, and accordingly, to a fuller understanding of the necessary components of tax policy implementation.