Congressional Briefing: American Families, Global Competition, and Comprehensive Tax Reform in Historical Perspective

The National History Center of the American Historical Association will present a Congressional briefing on May 8, 2015, co-sponsored with the Joint Committee on Taxation, on historical perspectives of tax reform in the United States.  Ajay Mehrotra of Indiana Law School; Bruce Bartlett, former deputy assistant secretary of the Treasury; and Joe Thorndike of Tax Analysts will discuss the history of tax reform in the United States.  Professor Dane Kennedy, Director of the National History Center, will moderate the discussion.


Tax reform is a perennial issue in modern American politics.  Over the past century, the federal tax system has been pilloried for being unfair, inefficient, complex, and generally dysfunctional. “Tax reform” seems like the obvious answer to such problems, but the meaning and substance of that reform is anything but obvious. Indeed, “tax reform,” like many political slogans, is a moving target, its meaning derived less from ideal notions of “good” tax policy and more from changing social and economic conditions of American society.

This briefing by three scholars of American fiscal history will describe the evolution of the federal tax system from the early twentieth century through the present day. It will consider sweeping plans for “tax replacement” that have surfaced repeatedly, including calls for broad-based consumption levies like a national sales tax or value-added tax. It will also take a careful look at the Tax Reform Act of 1986, arguably the most important peacetime tax reform in American history.

Meet the Presenters

Ajay Mehrotra is Associate Dean for Research, Professor of Law, and Louis F. Niezer Faculty Fellow at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law – Bloomington, IN.  He is also an adjunct Professor of History at Indiana University and an Affiliated Faculty member of the Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop on Political Theory and Policy Analysis.

Professor Mehrotra’s recent publications include:

Making the Modern American Fiscal State: Law, Politics, and the Rise of Progressive Taxation, 1877–1929

The New Fiscal Sociology: Taxation in Comparative and Historical Perspective

Bruce Bartlett is an author, historian, and economist specializing in supply-side economics. He has served as a senior policy analyst under President Reagan, deputy assistant secretary for economic policy at the Treasury Department under President George H. W. Bush, staff director of the Joint Economic Committee of Congress, and as a member of staff for Congressmen Ron Paul and Jack Kemp and Senator Roger Jespen.

Mr. Bartlett’s most recent book is The Benefit and The Burden: Tax Reform-Why We Need It and What It Will Take

Joe Thorndike is director of the Tax History Project at Tax Analysts and an Adjunct Professor at the Northwestern University School of Law. He is a regular columnist for Tax Notes magazine and has also written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, Bloomberg,, the Huffington Post, and various academic journals.

Dr. Thorndike’s publications include:

War and Taxes

Tax Justice: The Ongoing Debate

Their Fair Share: Taxing the Rich in the Age of FDR

The briefing will be held on Friday, May 8, at 10 a.m. in Rayburn House Office Building, Room 2103.

RSVPs are requested.  To RSVP or for further information, please contact the Center’s assistant director, Dr. Amanda Moniz, at or 202-450-3209.