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Comparing the Kennedy, Reagan and Bush Tax Cuts

how much were the bush tax cuts

Fiscal Fact No. 15

Fiscal Fact No. 15

How big were the Bush tax cuts? According to the Treasury Department*, there have been 19 significant federal tax cuts since the end of World War II. Three of them have been passed under the Administration of George W. Bush—the Economic Growth and Tax Reform Reconciliation Act of 2001 (EGTRRA), the Job Creation and Workers Assistance Act of 2002 (JCWA), and The Jobs and Growth Tax Relief and Reconciliation Act of 2003 (JGTRRA).

Some taxpayers and policymakers have questioned the size of the Bush tax cut, considering the war costs and projected deficits. Table 1 below compares the 2003 tax cut with Bush’s 2001 and 2002 tax cuts, and with the two largest tax cuts in the post-WW II era—the Kennedy tax cut in 1964, and the Reagan tax cut in 1981. Table 2 compares these historic tax cuts to other federal fiscal priorities at the time.

Tax Cuts and Budget Resources

Comparing the size of these tax cuts with the federal budget shows that the Kennedy’s tax cuts represented 8.8 percent of the budget. In 1981, Reagan’s tax cuts represented 5.3 percent of the budget. Each of Bush’s tax cuts are smaller than Reagan’s—EGTRRA (3.8 percent), JCWA (2.5 percent) and the 2003 Tax Cut (1.8 percent). When the Bush tax cuts are combined (8.1 percent), they would be larger than Reagan’s tax cut, yet smaller than Kennedy’s tax cut.

Tax Cuts and Defense Costs

When the Kennedy tax cuts were enacted, defense spending constituted a whopping 42.1 percent of the federal budget. When President Reagan pushed though his tax cuts, the Pentagon consumed 22 percent of the budget. Today, defense spending consumes just 17.1 percent of the budget—25 percentage points below Kennedy’s defense spending.

Tax Cuts and Deficits

President Kennedy passed his tax cuts as he ran a deficit equaling 1 percent of national income. In 1981, Reagan cut taxes while running a deficit of 2.8 percent of national income. In contrast, Bush passed the largest of his three tax cuts, EGTRAA, in 2001 with a budget surplus of 1.5 percent of income.

Caveats: Comparing Taxes Over Time

Comparing tax legislation over time is tricky. In the 1960s, Congress only calculated how much a tax proposal would save taxpayers in the

next year. In the late 1970s, five-year estimates became the norm, and more recently ten-year estimates have been required.

Obviously, no one should compare the dollar amount of a ten-year estimate to a five-year or one-year estimate. Whenever you hear or read that the Bush tax cut in 2001 was "the biggest tax cut ever," that’s the mistake—it’s like saying an 8-oz. steak costs more now than a 16-oz. steak cost 20 years ago. With two precautions, however, tax legislation can be compared. The first step is to adjust for inflation, and the second is to compare the same number of years.

All tax estimates are published in "current dollars," without any adjustment for inflation. Since a dollar is worth a lot less now than it was 20 or 40 years ago, all dollar amounts from past estimates must be converted into "constant dollars," which adjusts for inflation. In the tables below, estimates from years past are converted into constant 2003 dollars. This answers the question: what would the tax cuts of yesteryear be worth today?

Another way to make estimates comparable over time is to measure them as a percentage of the U.S. economy, or as a percentage of the Federal Budget. Since these grow over time, we can get a sense of how big tax cuts of the past were. Keep in mind, though, that because the Kennedy tax cut was "scored" for one year only, we can only compare it to the first year of the other bills. The first year of some bills is unusually large; this is the case with the 2002 tax cut. Other tax bills have relatively small first-year effects.

And finally, one additional warning: these estimates are the predictions made before the tax cuts were passed. No one ever goes back to revise them if things turn out differently. For example, the 2001 Bush tax cut has so far turned out to be smaller than the estimates predicted because recessionary times prevented many people from taking advantage of lower rates. So while the comparison is interesting, and it gives a general idea of how large a tax cut past Presidents and Congresses were willing to consider, it is an exercise fraught with technical difficulties.

* Tempalski, Jerry, "Revenue Effects of Major Tax Bills," Office of Tax Analysis Working Paper 81, December 1998.

Category: Taxes

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