Why Major Federal Tax Reform Is Being Discussed

1. The current U.S. tax system has imperfections, such as—

2. The current U.S. tax system is too complex—

3. The current U.S. tax system is costly for taxpayers to comply with—

4. The current U.S. tax system is frequently used to create incentives to either encourage a particular activity or discourage a particular activity (that is, it is not neutral)—



Commonly Listed Goals for Major Federal Tax Reform

Listed below are various goals that have been suggested as reasons to undertake major reform at the federal level in the U.S. Background information is also provided here to better understand why each of the goals has likely been offered as a reason for reform. The following goals are not listed in any particular order.

1. To simplify the current tax system.

A 1993 study by the Tax Foundation found that on average, a Fortune 500 company spends $2,110,000 annually to comply with income taxes. For small business, the federal income tax compliance cost for 1990 was 390% of the tax owed. ["The Income Tax Compliance Cost of Big Business," the Tax Foundation, Nov. 1993; "Accounting Costs, Another Tax," by Hall, Wall Street Journal, Dec. 9, 1993, page A18.]

At tax reform hearings before the House Ways & Means Committee in June 1995, the senior tax counsel for Mobil Corporation brought with him his 9 volume, 6,300 page, 76-pound federal tax return. He stated that Mobil spent $10 million, 57 man-years and workpapers consisting of about 146,000 documents to produce the return for which Mobil owed $2 billion in taxes. ["Hearings open on tax overhaul," San Jose Mercury News, June 7, 1995.]

2. To improve compliance to reduce the tax gap.

The tax gap is the difference between taxes that are owed and taxes that are voluntarily paid. Currently, the federal tax gap exceeds $110 billion per year. [The IRS estimates that the amount of taxes not voluntarily paid is about 17% of total federal income taxes each year (83% compliance rate). IRS enforcement efforts eventually raise the compliance rate to about 87% each tax year. GAO, Reducing The Tax Gap - Results of a GAO-Sponsored Symposium, GAO/GGD-95-157, June 1995, pages 2-3.]

3. To improve the ability of companies to compete globally.

The U.S. tax system has differences from those of trading partners: the U.S. has a worldwide tax system where all income is taxed no matter where it is earned (rather than a territorial system which only taxes income earned within the borders); U.S. income taxes are not border adjustable (for example, GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) and the WTO (World Trade Organization) favor indirect taxes, such as a value-added tax, which can be imposed on imported goods and refunded for exports). The United States and Australia are the only OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries without a value-added tax. [OECD, Consumption Tax Trends, 1995, pg. 11; hereinafter, Consumption Tax Trends.] However, Australia will start to use a goods and services tax (GST) in 2000.

4. To eliminate the IRS from every citizen's life.

House Ways & Means Chairman Bill Archer includes eliminating the IRS from the lives of individuals as one of his five key objectives for federal tax reform: "I mean completely and totally out of our individual lives." [Congressman Archer, "Goals of Fundamental Tax Reform," in Frontiers of Tax Reform, The Hoover Institute, 1996, page 4.]

Author Comment: As long as a tax exists, an administrative agency is required to collect the tax and be sure that the proper amount is collected. Thus, a tax agency, such as the IRS, cannot be completely eliminated.

5. To serve as part of a plan to shrink government.

If the public wants a smaller government, a simpler tax system would likely be needed in order to shrink the size of the IRS and Treasury Department. Also, if smaller government means that less revenue is needed, than perhaps the current system should be reviewed to determine what spending will be reduced and whether it ties into specific tax rules that could be eliminated. Such a review should also consider where complications and inefficiencies of our current tax system can be eliminated.

6. To serve as part of a plan to change government spending.

Government spending has changed greatly in the past 30 years such that today, entitlement spending and payment of interest on the federal debt dominate, relative to prior years.


Major Spending

Percentage of outlays for:



  Discretionary spending



  Entitlements and other mandatory spending



  Deposit insurance



  Net interest



  Offsetting receipts






Data source: "The Economic And Budget Outlook: Fiscal Years 1996-2000," CBO Director Robert Reischauer, 1/95, Tables E-4 and E-6.

Problems exist with Social Security and Medicare funding in that funds are not expected to be sufficient to meet the needs of the "baby boom" generation. In 1995, the Bipartisan Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform reported that if no policy changes are made, spending on entitlements and interest on the debt will consume almost all federal revenue by the year 2010. By the year 2030, federal revenue will not be sufficient to pay for entitlement spending. [Final Report To The President from the Bipartisan Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform, January 1995, pages 9 and 17. ] Medicare Part A is currently projected to be insolvent by the year 2003.

7. To enable individuals to better see how much money they are giving to the government.

Congressman Armey's first flat tax bill introduced in 1994, H.R. 4585, proposed to eliminate withholding and replace it with monthly payments to better enable citizens to see what they were spending on government. This proposal was eliminated from Armey's current flat tax proposal, H.R. 1040. However, this goal also underlies the proposal to replace the U.S. income tax system with a national retail sales tax. Proponents of a national retail sales tax suggest that it will be a more transparent system than the current wage withholding technique used for the individual income tax, and will enable individuals to better control how much they pay, by controlling how much they spend.

8. To improve savings.

The current U.S. tax system is viewed as not encouraging savings because it taxes earnings from savings. The U.S. savings rate is lower than that of Germany and Japan. OECD statistics show that between 1983 and 1992, Japan's national savings rate was over five times higher than the U.S. savings rate while Germany's rate was three times higher and than the U.S. and the European Union rate was over twice as much.

Net national savings in the U.S. as a percentage of GDP is low relative to other countries. For example, in 1989, the OECD reported that the net national savings as a percentage of GDP was as follows for these countries:



Net national savings
as a % of GDP




















United Kingdom



United States


9. To improve capital formation.

The current system favors debt over equity because corporations can deduct interest payments, but cannot deduct dividend payments. Also, some view our current tax system as taxing capital gains at too high of a rate and not adjusting for inflationary gains (that is, the cost of a capital asset is not adjusted upward to reflect the effects of inflation, thus, when that asset is sold at a gain, some (or perhaps all) of that gain represents inflation, rather than a true increase in value). In addition, some view IRC �1202, added in 1993 to allow non-corporate shareholders a 50% exclusion for gains from small business stock held over five years, as too restrictive to be useful. Finally, some view the estate tax system as another hindrance to capital formation.

10. To reduce the tax burden for individuals.

The strong U.S. economy has led to a budget surplus (if the Social Security fund surplus is included) after a few decades of deficits. Many politicians would like to return some of this surplus back to individuals now. However, many would also like to wait until the Social Security system is strengthened.

Arguably, the American public will only give up favored deductions and tax credits if tax reform results in a lower tax liability for them now and in the future.

Author Comment: Before Congress engages in major tax reform, it should clearly indicate what the objectives are and rank the goals in order of importance so that proposals can be properly evaluated. Each of the current reform proposals does not meet each of the goals listed above.

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Copyright Annette Nellen 1999.

Last Modified: Mar 11, 2020