Here is what you need to know about the Republican tax plan released Wednesday: It’s not a tax reform plan at all.
It is a sketch of an outline of a preliminary notion of a tax cut for some — and a tax hike for others. The components read like the jumble of ideas you might expect a table of slightly inebriated Chamber of Commerce types to shout out when polled for their tax reform suggestions.
The plan is sketchy, as I say, but this is the gist: Where individuals are concerned, the seven current individual income tax brackets will become three: 12 percent, 25 percent, and 35 percent. The standard deduction will be raised to $24,000 for couples and $12,000 for individuals. There will be a substantially bigger child tax credit.
It’s not just the nerdiest details that are missing: We don’t, for example, know what the top tax rate would actually be (the proposal dangles the possibility of a fourth tax bracket, for high earners, on top of that 35 percent rate). We don’t know where the new tax brackets begin and end, or the magnitude of the enlarged child tax credit. In many cases it is impossible for me or anyone else to tell you whether you will be better or worse off, given the lack of detail.
We know that some lower-income Americans will be worse off, because the skimpy document says so. The lowest tax bracket increases by fully 20 percent, from 10 to 12 percent. The larger standard deduction, the unspecified larger child tax credit, and “additional tax relief” to be named later will protect “typical” low-income families from a tax hike, we are told, but others will see their bills actually climb. And the aged and the elderly will lose their additional standard deduction, which under current law offers them up to $5,000 in additional deductions.
The “doubling” of the standard deduction (to $24,000 for married couples filing joint returns) is offset in part by disallowing personal exemptions. Today, taxpayers are entitled to one standard deduction per tax return, plus a personal exemption (a $4,050 additional deduction) for each family member. The proposal would take away these personal exemptions. This means that a family of four will go from $28,900 in these deductions (standard deduction plus four personal exemptions) to $24,000 (larger standard deduction but no personal exemptions). That’s a decrease, not a doubling.
The framework contemplates an enhanced child tax credit that will make things better, but there’s no detail here at all, including on the income point at which the enhanced child credit will start to phase out.
We also know from today’s announcement that itemizers will lose their state and local tax deductions, and that this benefit is enjoyed primarily by relatively affluent residents in blue states. But other itemized deductions will also disappear, including the deduction for extraordinary medical expenses. A family that’s forced to devote substantially all its current income to supporting a critically ill family member will now pay tax on its income without any relief for those circumstances.
Guess who benefits?
We can identify at least one taxpayer who will hugely benefit from the proposal: President Donald Trump. We still haven’t seen his tax returns, but thanks to leaked documents we know that at least at some point in the past, the only income tax he paid was the alternative minimum tax (the AMT). We also know that his businesses operate through “pass-through” vehicles (partnerships, LLCs and S corporations). A regular corporation pays tax on its income; shareholders in turn pay tax on the dividends they receive. In pass-through vehicles, by contrast, business income is taxed only in the hands of the owners of the business, rather than at the entity level.
And we know that Trump is very wealthy, and therefore in the ordinary course of events might be expected one day to leave behind a large estate, which, to the extent not left entirely to his wife at that time, would attract a substantial estate tax bill.
What does the Republican proposal do in this case? It eliminates the AMT. It subjects income derived from pass-through businesses like Donald Trump’s empire to a special 25 percent tax rate (rather than 35 percent or 39.6 percent, the individual rate), because owners of these businesses are special, in some indeterminate way. And the proposal repeals the estate tax.
Here you see the real agenda at work. When it matters, the proposal has more than enough detail to signal to President Trump and the Republican Party’s coterie of oligarch financial backers that their personal taxes will be slashed, not by a few hundred or thousands of dollars, but by millions and millions.
The 25 percent tax rate for pass-throughs is particularly galling, because it has no principle at all behind it, and will be the subject of widespread abuse, as taxpayers maneuver to squeeze their incomes into the pass-through business box. The proposal describes this as some sort of discounted rate for small business owners, but that is simply dishonest. It applies to all pass-through vehicles, including those owned by Trump and his counterparts.
Little evident concern for the effect on the deficit
As best as can be determined today, the numbers behind the proposal are so off base as to make the whole enterprise laughable. The document released this morning makes no projections as to its cost. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget puts the figure at roughly $5.8 trillion over the 10-year budget window; other estimates put the price tag at $5 trillion or so. To put this number into context, the total Treasury debt held by the public today is about $15 trillion; a $5 trillion revenue shortfall would by itself require federal borrowing equal to one-third of the debt currently in the hands of the public.
The CRFB estimates that revenue increases (many of which are completely unspecified in the proposal) would offset about $3.6 trillion of the gross $5.8 trillion cost, for a net deficit increase of $2.2 trillion over 10 years. But even that figure is ludicrously large in terms of its impact on deficits and outstanding Treasury debt, as the CRFB points out.
What’s more, to get legislation through Congress relying only on Republican votes, the majority must rely on reconciliation instructions contained in a budget resolution. The Senate majority has already begun that process by agreeing that its budget resolution will lose $1.5 trillion in revenue over the 10-year budget window. This means that even if the proposal were to include revenue raisers of the magnitude that has been suggested, it would still yield deficits that were two-thirds larger than those contemplated by the Senate majority in its budget resolution negotiations. Therefore, it would have to be trimmed to fit.
The House is further behind in the process, because of internal divisions, but it is improbable that the House will aim for a budget resolution providing deficits two-thirds larger than the figure negotiated by the Senate majority.
No responsible economist thinks that this package, including its giveaways to the most affluent, will somehow produce so much economic growth as to offset a $2.5 trillion hole in the budget. The growth effects of tax cuts (itself a controversial topic) would be vitiated by soaring national debt, and with it, higher borrowing costs for businesses, whose own borrowing rates are set by reference to the rate at which the Treasury can borrow.
What’s more, a deficit-increasing bill can rely on the reconciliation process — the process that allows a simple majority vote in the Senate — only if it does not raise deficits in years after the 10-year budget window, which means the tax breaks here would have to be temporary. That itself is a big negative in making the case that this sort of raid on the Treasury would be growth-enhancing.
In short, where personal taxes are concerned, the proposal is a surefire winner for the very top of the income ladder, including the president. It’s also a budget buster, and it may turn out on balance to raise the income tax burden on you, the reader.
Edward D. Kleinbard is the Robert C. Packard trustee chair in law at the USC Gould School of Law and the author of We Are Better Than This: How Government Should Spend Our Money.
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