Could this be the year that a comprehensive tax reform law is passed by Congress and signed by President Obama?
On the face of it, the very idea sounds absurd. To call the current Congress dysfunctional would be an understatement. Simply reaching a budget compromise this week was viewed as a surprising accomplishment.
But the below-the-radar reality is that a lot of work has been taking place in the tax-writing committees, at least to some extent on a bipartisan basis. They have churned out thoughtful reports and proposals that go into real detail on several complicated issues.
Moreover, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Dave Camp of Michigan, faces a deadline. Under Republican caucus rules, he must step down as chairman at the end of this year.
Until recently, it appeared his Senate counterpart, Max Baucus of Montana, faced a similar deadline. He had announced plans to retire at the end of this Congress. But Senator Baucus will now leave far sooner than that. He has been nominated to be ambassador to China and will leave the Senate after he is confirmed. The new chairman of the Finance Committee will be Ron Wyden of Oregon.
That could be interesting. Few senators have shown as much eagerness to work across the aisle as he has. He has been pushing his own tax plan in concert with Senator Dan Coats, Republican of Indiana. That plan at least broadly follows the lines of any tax overhaul now possible: a reduction in stated tax rates, with the loss in revenue made up by closing loopholes and exemptions.
Senator Wyden is not talking about his plan now, pending his ascendancy to the chairmanship, but it remains on his website.
That plan is not, it must be said, a profile in courage. It goes after some loopholes and preferences but not enough of them to justify the cuts in rates that are included in the proposal. He is more specific than some, however, in saying that he would end the practice of not counting as income the value of employee fringe benefits. That would substantially raise the reported income of a lot of people and would not be popular with many, including labor unions. Even so, the net result of the plan, according to an analysis done by the Joint Committee on Taxation in 2011, would have been to lose revenue.
That is not what we need now. Federal tax revenue in recent years has been at historical lows, at least as measured by a percentage of gross domestic product. One cause of that was the Great Recession, but it was not the only one. The fundamental problem was that the Bush tax cuts of 2001 were too great. Tax revenue soared in the late 1990s, for reasons that were not well understood. The economic analysis supporting the cuts simply overestimated how much revenue would come in during future years.
If Congress is serious about tax reform — and about curbing the power of special-interest lobbyists to carve out exemptions and special breaks for favored industries — there is, it seems to me, one relatively simple way to go about that.
Congress would start with an estimate of how much money needed to be raised — an estimate that would be based on what the entire Congress was willing to spend. That estimate would be over a multiyear period, for the course of an economic cycle. The government should be expected to run deficits during recessions, as revenue shrinks and safety net spending grows, and to offset them during good times. They could even program in an assumption of a multiyear surplus.
The next step would be to decide how much revenue should come from the corporate income tax — a tax that now has the highest stated rates of any leading country but that produces shockingly little revenue. That odd combination reflects in no small part the ability of many multinational companies to avoid paying significant taxes. The rest would presumably come from individual taxes, including payroll taxes like Social Security and Medicare.
I know none of that would be easy. But if it could be done, the interesting part would start.
First, the government could have the tax experts estimate the marginal tax rate needed to produce the desired revenue. If they wanted, they could maintain some progressivity with higher rates on higher incomes.
That estimate would produce astoundingly low necessary tax rates. It would do that by assuming the elimination of every tax preference, deduction and credit. It would also assume no deductions for mortgage interest or charitable giving and no exemption for interest on municipal bonds. It would assume that the value of health insurance provided to employees would be taxed just like any other compensation.
It would assume the same tax rate for capital gains and other income — an assumption that would automatically end a lot of games that are played now to convert ordinary income into capital gains. The “carried interest” tactic used by private equity firms — the one that enabled Mitt Romney to pay so little in taxes — is just the most famous of those.
On the corporate side, it would assume that all income was subject to tax when it was earned, including overseas income. There would be tax credits for foreign taxes actually paid. But all the special incentives — to invest in low-income housing, or in wind energy projects, or in a myriad other things — would be assumed to vanish.
With that as the starting point, Congress could debate restoring as many of those as anyone wished. But each proposed amendment would have to pay for itself with higher rates. A vote to preserve the mortgage interest deduction would clearly be a vote to raise taxes on those who don’t receive that deduction. The same goes for the capital gains preference and the charitable deduction.
All too often now, we pass tax benefits as if they had no cost to others. This would make it clear that is not the case. If we start with the assumption that a certain amount of revenue must be raised, then giving me a break means making everyone else pay more.
On the corporate side, it could lead to a splitting of interests among business groups. If General Electric and Apple can come up with ways to largely avoid actually paying federal income taxes, that means that other companies, including small ones, must pay more. Some of them would suddenly have reasons to lobby against complicated breaks that, in the past, had no real opposition.
On the individual side, perhaps, it could lead to a similar change in attitude. If a rich person is able — through perfectly legal use of tax breaks — to pay a very low tax rate, then the rest of us will have reason to resent the fact that those breaks exist. If they did not, we could pay lower rates.
It might be reasonable to phase out some existing breaks rather than cancel them immediately. Some breaks could be maintained but revised in a way to keep them from being overly generous to high-income people. Currently, a $1,000 charitable deduction from a person in the 39.6 percent bracket saves $396 in taxes, while a similar contribution from a person in the 28 percent bracket saves only $280. Offering a $280 tax credit instead would cost the middle-income giver nothing but would raise revenue from higher-income taxpayers.
If this process did lead to a new tax law, it would probably result in a far, far simpler tax code than the current one — simply because a lot of tax breaks would not pass if the cost to the rest of us was clear.
Is all this a fantasy? Probably. The most likely outcome this year is that no bill will be enacted. Achieving significant change would require a willingness on both sides of the aisle to stop seeking easy political gain. That happened in 1986, when the last serious tax reform law was passed, but it is hard to imagine it happening now.
Nonetheless, Senator Wyden has shown a willingness to reach across party lines in ways that have sometimes made his fellow Democrats uncomfortable. In 2011, he sponsored a Medicare proposal with Representative Paul Ryan, who became the Republican vice-presidential nominee the next year.
It is hard to believe that he and Representative Camp could reach an agreement that would gain support from both parties and both houses. But he might be willing to try.
The High & Low Finance column on Friday, about the potential for changes to the tax code this year, misidentified the entity that analyzed a tax plan drafted by Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon and found that it would lose revenue. It is the Joint Committee on Taxation, not the Congressional Budget Office.