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The U.S. Congress passed the Tax Reform Act (TRA) of 1986, ( ) to simplify the income tax code, broaden the tax base and eliminate many tax shelters and other preferences. Referred to as the second of the two "Reagan tax cuts" (the Kemp-Roth Tax Cut of 1981 being the first), the bill was also officially sponsored by Democrats, Richard Gephardt of Missourimarker in the House of Representatives and Bill Bradley of New Jerseymarker in the Senate.

The tax reform was designed to be revenue neutral, but because individual taxes were decreased while corporate taxes were increased, Congressional Budget Office estimates (which ignore corporate taxes) suggested every tax payer saw a decrease in their tax bill. As of 2009, the Tax Reform Act of 1986 was the most recent major simplification of the tax code, drastically reducing the number of deductions and the number of tax brackets.

Income tax rates

The top tax rate was lowered from 50% to 28% while the bottom rate was raised from 11% to 15% since many lower level tax brackets were consolidated, and the upper income level of the bottom rate was increased from $5,720/year to $29,750/year. This package ultimately consolidated tax brackets from fifteen levels of income to four levels of income. This would be the only time in the history of the U.S. income tax (which dates back to the passage of the Revenue Act of 1862) that the top rate was reduced and the bottom rate increased concomitantly. In addition, capital gains faced the same tax rate as ordinary income. Moreover, interest on consumer loans such as credit card debt were no longer deductible. An existing provision in the tax code, called Income Averaging, which reduced taxes for those only recently making a much higher salary than before, was eliminated (although later partially reinstated, for farmers in 1997 and for fishermen in 2004). The Act, however, increased the personal exemption and standard deduction.

The rate structure also maintained a novel "bubble rate." The rates were not 15%/28%, as widely reported. Rather, the rates were 15%/28%/33%/28%. The "bubble rate" of 33% simply elevated the 15% rate to 28% for higher-income taxpayers. As a result, for taxpayers after a certain income level, TRA86 provided a flat tax of 28%. This was jettisoned in the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990, otherwise known as the "Bush tax increase", which violated his Taxpayer Protection Pledge.

Tax incentives

The Act also increased incentives favoring investment in owner-occupied housing relative to rental housing by increasing the Home Mortgage Interest Deduction. The imputed income an owner receives from an investment in owner-occupied housing has always escaped taxation, much like the imputed (estimated) income someone receives from doing his own cooking instead of hiring a chef, but the Act changed the treatment of imputed rent, local property taxes, and mortgage interest payments to favor homeownership, while phasing out many investment incentives for rental housing. To the extent that low-income people may be more likely to live in rental housing than in owner-occupied housing, this provision of the Act could have had the tendency to decrease the new supply of housing accessible to low-income people. The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit was added to the Act to provide some balance and encourage investment in multifamily housing for the poor.

The Individual Retirement Account (IRA) deduction was severely restricted. The IRA had been created as part of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, where employees not covered by a pension plan could contribute the lesser of $1500 or 15% of earned income. The Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 (ERTA) removed the pension plan clause and raised the contribution limit to $2000 or 100% of earned income. The 1986 Tax Reform Act retained the $2000 contribution limit, but restricted the deductibility for households that have pension plan coverage and have moderate to high incomes. Non-deductible contributions were allowed.

Depreciation deductions were also curtailed. Prior to ERTA81, depreciation was based on "useful life" calculations provided by the Treasury Department. ERTA81 set up the "accelerated cost recovery system," or ACRS. This set up a series of useful lives based on 3 years for technical equipment, 5 years for non-technical office equipment, 10 years for industrial equipment, and 15 years for real property. TRA86 lengthened these lives, and lengthened them further for taxpayers covered by the alternative minimum tax (AMT). These latter, longer lives approximate "economic depreciation," a concept economists have used to determine the actual life of an asset relative to its economic value.

Defined contribution pension contributions were curtailed. The law prior to TRA86 was that DC pension limits were the lesser of 25% of compensation or $30,000. This could be accomplished by any combination of elective deferrals and profit sharing contributions. TRA86 introduced an elective deferral limit of $7000, indexed to inflation. Since the profit sharing percentage must be uniform for all employees, this had the intended result of making more equitable contributions to 401(k)'s and other types of DC pension plans.

Changes to the Alternative Minimum Tax

The original AMT targeted tax shelters used by a few wealthy households. However, the Tax Reform Act of 1986 greatly expanded the AMT to aim at a different set of deductions that most Americans receive. Things like the personal exemption, state and local taxes, the standard deduction, private activity bond interest, certain expenses like union dues and even some medical costs for the seriously ill could now trigger the AMT. In 2007, the New York Times reported, "A law for untaxed rich investors was refocused on families who own their homes in high tax states."

Passive losses and tax shelters

By enacting (relating to limitations on deductions for passive activity losses and limitations on passive activity credits) to remove many tax shelters, especially for real estate investments, the Act significantly decreased the value of many such investments which had been held more for their tax-advantaged status than for their inherent profitability. This may have contributed to the end of the real estate boom of the early to mid '80s as well as to the Savings and Loan crisis.

Prior to 1986, much real estate investment was done by passive investors. It was common for syndicates of investors to pool their resources in order to invest in property, commercial or residential. They would then hire management companies to run the operation. TRA 86 reduced the value of these investments by limiting the extent to which losses associated with them could be deducted from the investor's gross income. This, in turn, encouraged the holders of loss-generating properties to try and unload them, which contributed further to the problem of sinking real estate values. This turmoil and repositioning in real estate markets was caused not by changes in market conditions.

Mortgages and similar real property loans constituted a significant portion of S&Ls' asset portfolios. Significant declines in the market value of real properties resulted in the erosion of the value of these institutions' major assets.

Some economists consider the net long-term effect of eliminating tax shelters and other distortions to be positive for the economy, by redirecting money to the most inherently profitable investments.

To help less-affluent landlords, TRA86 gave a $25,000 net rental loss deduction provided that the home was not personally used for the greater of 14 days or 10% of rental days, and AGI is less than $100,000 (pro-rated phase-out through $150,000).

Name change for the Internal Revenue Code

Section 2(a) of the Act also officially changed the name of the Internal Revenue Code from the Internal Revenue Code of 1954 to the Internal Revenue Code of 1986. Although the Act made numerous amendments to the Code, it was not a substantial re-codification or reorganization of the overall structure of the Code.


External links

  • Showdown at Gucci Gulch is a book about the bill's passage

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