The question of how much income tax a presidential candidate pays comes up every four years. It’s been a rite of passage since the early 1970s. This year, the question has been more contentious than in some years as voters and pundits are clamoring for more information from Gov. Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee.
Critics think Romney’s effective rate (taxes paid divided by gross income) of 14.1% sounds low, and call it unfair that a wealthy businessman pays a much lower tax rate than a middle class worker, but that’s the way the tax code is written. And Romney can say that there is at least one president over the last 40 years who paid a much lower rate.
That information comes from taxanalysts.com, which looked at the returns of all presidents, plus Romney, going back to Richard Nixon. (They note that President Gerald Ford did not release returns but did make public detailed information about his taxes.)
It’s notable that, in general, the effective tax rate paid has gone down over the years. That, as taxanalysts.com explains, is because of tax reform that has lowered tax bills for everyone.
Here is the countdown from highest to lowest Tax Rates Paid by 8 U.S. Presidents and 1 nominee:
9. Gerald Ford: 37.8%
Gerald Ford took over the presidency after Nixon resigned. His reputation after more than two decades representing Michigan in the House of Representatives was one of honesty and integrity. Nothing about his tax bill would change that perception. A check of his taxes from before he was president shows the effective tax rate he paid as bouncing between 31% and 42% from 1966-74.
(President Ford dancing with Queen Elizabeth at the White House in 1976. Photo: AP)
8. Ronald Reagan: 32.37%
Maybe the “Great Communicator” was inspired to champion tax reform after glimpsing his own tax bill. While his rate is second-highest on this list, there is something else to note about Reagan’s taxes. According to the National Journal, he was the first presidential challenger pressured to release his tax returns.
(President Reagan showing off his boot after signing his tax reform bill at his California home in 1981. Photo: AP)
7. Jimmy Carter: 31%
Carter came in promising to attack the culture that ruled Washington. As an outsider, he won support from voters looking for a change after Vietnam and Watergate had left the country weary. Carter’s presidency was a bust, although some historians tout his post-presidency success as second only to Herbert Hoover’s.
(President Carter signing a bill in the White House in 1977. Photo: AP)
6. George W. Bush: 27.17%
Bush, whose name is famously attached to a series of tax cuts set to expire at the end of this year, sits smack in the middle of our list. Judging by his quiet post-presidency, he’s probably glad to be watching the battle over those tax breaks from the comfort of his Texas home.
(President Bush walking through the White House in 2006. Photo: AP)