The year was 1963, the president was John F. Kennedy and the burning issue, then as now, was the fairness of the tax system. With characteristic vigor, the young president exhorted, "Now is the time to act. We cannot afford to be timid or slow. For this is the most urgent task confronting the Congress."
On Tuesday, almost 22 years later to the day, President Reagan is to go on national television with almost the same message. He will vow to eliminate tens of billions of dollars of tax advantages benefiting corporations and the rich, using the extra money to lower rates for all Americans -- the thrust of Kennedy's plan. The success record for such efforts is not good. Reagan's will be the sixth major proposal in a generation to swap lucrative breaks for lower overall rates. Kennedy tried in 1961 and 1963. President Jimmy Carter tried in 1978. In between the Treasury Department and Congress each tried twice.
Altogether, they produced just a few significant changes, a shadow of what was envisioned, and no match for the special breaks that continued spreading through the Internal Revenue Code after tax-revision fever abated.
The earlier efforts hold lessons for Reagan and the 99th Congress, according to several who championed them. In each case, political leaders warmed to the idea of a "simple" tax code with lower rates for all, special advantages for none. But once the proposals came to a vote, few resisted the charities, oil companies and other interest groups dependent on those tax breaks.
The political problem always was whether beneficiaries of tax breaks stand to lose much more than average taxpayers stand to gain from lower tax rates. A few big losers, armed with lobbyists and political contributions, fight harder than lots of little winners.
"There is no one so pessimistic about the future of the country as an industry or taxpayer faced with losing a tax preference," warned former assistant Treasury secretary Stanley Surrey, the father of tax reform, in 1969. "All see the tax system as a device to pour out financial assistance to industries and activities that do not want to trust the marketplace. The accent is not on private enterprise, but on private enterprise plus tax assistance."
The Reagan Treasury Department's tax proposal, submitted in November, is far more ambitious than its predecessors, according to officials who sought to do the same under Presidents Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford and Carter.
But already, it has begun giving way to pressure from aggrieved interest groups. Special writeoffs for drilling oil and natural gas, which would have been eliminated in the original Treasury proposal, have been partially restored by Reagan, according to sources. So have a variety of tax advantages for real estate, life insurance, stock market investors, charities, banks, tax-shelter promoters and more.
Some disappointed officials said "Treasury Two," as the Reagan version is dubbed, should instead be called "Reagan 1, Treasury 0."
"Watching this process, I have the uneasy feeling that we may be living the same history all over again," said Vanderbilt Law School Dean Charles Galvin, a leading advocate since the early 1960s of a broader tax base and lower rates.
Still, champions of earlier efforts emphasized that the Reagan plan, even after the compromises, attacks an unusually wide range of tax benefits.
"No president I was ever associated with would let me go at the whole tax code," said Joseph Barr, a senior Treasury official under Kennedy and Johnson. "We brought up oil depletion and they said, 'It just can't be done.' "
In 1961, as now, the movement to overhaul the tax code grew from a desire to lower tax rates, stimulate the economy and curb tax breaks for the rich. Kennedy went after a range of business deductions, also proposing an investment tax credit to subsidize investment in modern machinery.
"The time has come when our tax laws should cease their encouragement of luxury spending as a charge on the federal treasury," Kennedy said in a phrase that would be at home in the original Treasury proposal. "The slogan, 'It's deductible,' should pass from our scene."
Kennedy's crusade was no match for teams of restaurateurs, waiters and cooks who warned Congress that curbing deductions for entertainment and meals would increase unemployment in their industry. Similarly, a Kennedy bid to withhold taxes on investment dividends and interest, just as income tax is withheld, fell victim to feverish lobbying by banks and savings and loans.
In the end, Congress passed the investment subsidy but little else.
In 1963, Kennedy tried again, proposing higher taxes on capital gains, an elimination of special breaks for the timber industry, curbs on real-estate and charitable deductions and more. He also proposed a major tax cut, reducing the top income tax rate from 91 percent to 65 percent.
But labor unions, industry groups, university presidents and others took on each proposal. Congress passed the tax cut, defeating most of the reforms. In 1968, led by Surrey, the Treasury Department proposed major curbs on special business and personal tax breaks. Again the issue was fairness, boosted by a Treasury study revealing that 154 people earning $200,000 or more had paid no taxes in 1967 -- legally, thanks to assorted breaks.
The study sparked a national welling of reform sentiment. In 1969, Congress voted to eliminate more tax breaks than ever before, restricting benefits for capital gains, cutting charitable deductions, enacting the first minimum tax and even curbing the once-inviolate oil depletion allowance. It used much of the money to exempt the poor from taxation.
"The Senate Finance Committee voted on the bill in closed session for a month, and every day, outside the door, were wall-to-wall lobbyists from special interests," said former Treasury official Paul McDaniel. "Then, they took up the standard deduction, which affects tens of millions of taxpayers, and there wasn't a single person in the hall. It was a graphic illustration of how no one is there when the general public's interest is at stake, but for special interests, it's wall-to-wall."
In the 1970s, Congress started a reform movement. After several unsuccessful tries, in 1976 Congress passed some of the most significant changes in the tax code. The momentum came largely from a national outcry over tax shelters for the rich, and Congress dramatically curbed shelters, tightened the minimum tax, raised capital gains taxes and sharply limited business deductions.
In 1978, Carter tried to go further. But a year earlier, he had proposed a dozen tax breaks for alternative energy development, and Congress denounced him for targeting certain breaks, while exempting his favorites. In retaliation, it widened the capital gains benefit.
One pattern emerging from these efforts is that the high watermark of any tax reform drive is reached when the Treasury Department makes its first proposal.
Then the compromises begin. The plan becomes more susceptible to political pressure when it goes to the White House, still more when it reaches Congress. One change begets others, and those who win concessions early in the process are not likely to lose them.
The prospects for major tax overhaul this year are more favorable than ever, according to past proponents. There is a confluence of all conditions that prompted reforms in the past -- a public outcry over tax-avoidance by the rich and by certain corporations, a desire for lower rates and support from the White House.
But for the first time, the effort is broadly bipartisan, and the clamor for lower tax rates is tied to elimination of tax breaks, thanks to the crushing pressure of a large federal deficit. Every break that the White House or Congress restores will use up money that could be used for rate reduction. The general taxpayer, therefore, will pay for it.
Reagan's precursors in the tax movement say his best hope for success is to push swiftly through the House a bill that eliminates enough special breaks to lower rates dramatically. Then, senators facing reelection would find it hard to oppose what will be billed as mass tax relief.
"Somebody once told me that no government has ever been able to tax rich people," said Barr, recalling the 1960s efforts. "I'd say we have a better shot now than at any point in my lifetime.