TO BRING House Republicans good luck in passing their replacement for the Affordable Care Act, Representative Pete Sessions of Texas wore a brown suit to the chamber, in honour of Ronald Reagan. After the vote was pulled from the House floor, Republicans in Washington moved on to the next big thing, which is tax reform. They may be about to prove again that dressing like the Gipper is easier than governing like him. Though there has long been some bipartisan agreement that both corporate and individual income-tax rates could be cut and loopholes eliminated, Congress has not pulled off a tax reform of the type now being contemplated since 1986. And that one almost failed.

Compared with other rich countries, the most striking thing about tax in America is its complexity. Since that 1986 tax reform the number of carve-outs in the tax code has multiplied, part of a bigger change in the way Congress does business. Where once the passage of bills was smoothed by including federal money for pet projects in congressmen’s districts, tax breaks are now the preferred lubricant. The growth of the federal tax code, which has tripled in length in the past 30 years, is often cited as proof that the country is overtaxed. But its size reflects all those special tax breaks. For individuals, the exemptions turn a tax system whose headline rates are redistributive, by rich-world standards, into one which is not.

The same is true of company taxation. The top marginal rate, of 39%, is an outlier by international standards (the OECD average is 25%). In some ways this was made worse by the 1986 reform, which shifted taxes from individuals onto companies, which at the time seemed less able to avoid them. Although the high top rate may deter investment, it does not reflect the tax bill American companies end up paying. Between 2006 and 2012, two-thirds of companies paid no federal tax, according to a study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Large companies that were profitable paid a federal tax of 14% on their net income between 2008 and 2012, according to the GAO, a rate that rose to 22% once state and local taxes were included. In the case of both individual and company taxes, Republicans tend to look at the headline rates and agree they need to come down, which is the basis for the optimism among their caucus that tax is easier than health care. But those rates are not what they seem.

Bringing them down would require some combination of closing exemptions, increasing the deficit and borrowing. The House tax plan drawn up by Paul Ryan, the Speaker, and Kevin Brady, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, proposes getting rid of some exemptions granted to taxpayers but leaves two of the biggest—the deductions for mortgage interest and for charitable giving—alone. It is also silent on what would be one of the hardest parts of a tax reform: the deduction for state taxes. Some states, like Florida, have no personal income tax. Floridians therefore do not receive a state income-tax deduction when they pay federal income tax. California does have a state income tax, with a top marginal rate of 13.3%. Its representatives are therefore keen on the deduction. The Ryan-Brady plan also counted on a $1trn saving from repealing Obamacare, which will not now materialise, and means more deductions would have to be eliminated.

This is where the politics is hardest, and lobbyists have the greatest purchase. Over 230 House Republicans have signed a pledge not to vote for any tax rise, giving them cover to reject a bill that offends constituents or donors by killing a tax break.

That leaves cutting taxes by cutting spending, or adding to the debt and deficit. Republicans tend to worry less about prudent budgeting when they control the White House. The next indicator of whether this pattern will hold comes at the end of April, the deadline for a new bill to fund the federal government’s operations. A shutdown then would suggest there are enough deficit hawks among the House Republicans to make an unfunded tax cut hard (in 1986, Reagan threatened to veto any tax reform that reduced government revenue). If there is no shutdown, as seems likelier, then assume that the party will be content to make the deficit great again.

There are limits to how deep the cuts could be, though. Under current congressional rules, Democrats have enough members in the Senate to force Republicans to pass a bill that does not increase the deficit after ten years. Republicans passed just such a time-limited tax cut when George W. Bush was president. A repeat of that, perhaps with some favourable tax treatment for firms that repatriate foreign profits, is the lowest common denominator on tax policy for the Republican caucus. Expect something more like that.