Don’t let Congress fast-track another tax cut

House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) high-profile speech at last week’s 2012 Fiscal Summit garnered much attention for its pledge to again hijack the debt ceiling; less noticed was his announcement that the House of Representatives will establish a fast-track process for expediting “tax reform.” Comprehensive tax reform could add much needed revenue and balance to a long-term deficit “grand bargain,” but that’s not what Boehner is talking about:

“If we do this right, we will never again have to deal with the uncertainty of expiring tax rates. We’ll have replaced the broken status quo with a tax code that maintains progressivity, taxes income once, and creates a fairer, simpler code. And if we do that right, we will see increased revenue from more economic growth.” (Full text here.)

Anything resembling the tax plan recommended by Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and included in Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) fiscal 2013 budget resolution—Boehner’s chief fiscal policy deputies—is going to have a devilishly hard time meeting this laundry list of talking points. That’s because conservatives falsely equate a “simpler” tax code with cutting and consolidating tax brackets, which would confer big tax cuts to upper-income households in the top tax brackets. This is the bedrock of the Camp-Ryan tax plan: “Consolidate the current six individual income tax brackets into just two brackets of 10 and 25 percent.” Short of unspecified offsets, this would sap progressivity from the tax code and deprive the Treasury of $2.5 trillion over a decade—accounting for more than half of the $4.5 trillion of unfunded tax cuts proposed in the Ryan budget. Combined with the other major tenants—repealing the alternative minimum tax (AMT), cutting the corporate tax rate to 25 percent, exempting foreign profits from taxation, and repealing health care reform—the tax code would be markedly flattened at the top of the income distribution, as seen in the Tax Policy Center’s (TPC) analysis of the Ryan budget, again short of unspecified offsets:

The red bars show what regressive upper-income tax cuts and lower-income tax increases look like, not what tax reform looks like. The missing element is how the tax cuts would be financed—i.e., which unspecified tax expenditures would be eliminated in “broadening the tax base.” House Republicans object to eliminating or even scaling back the preferential tax rates on capital gains and dividends—the tax expenditures most disproportionately benefiting upper-income households—which would be the only feasible way to maintain progressivity at the top of the income distribution with a top rate of 25 percent and no AMT. Repealing exclusions—like that for employer-sponsored health insurance—would hit middle- and upper-middle class households a lot harder than upper-income households, and repealing refundable tax credits would wallop only lower- and middle-income households (see Table 2 of this TPC report). Itemized deductions are more regressive, but nowhere nearly as regressive as the preferential treatment of capital income. If substantial base broadening were added to the Camp-Ryan tax plan without raising rates on capital income, either substantial progressivity or revenue (likely both) would be lost relative to current policy. Many lower- and middle-income households would effectively foot the bill, subsidizing more upper-income tax cuts.

With respect to the budget, relying on “economic growth” for more revenue translates to, at best, revenue-neutral tax reform relative to the inadequate levels raised by current policy. Official scorekeepers—the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation—rightfully reject the kind of “dynamic scoring” (i.e., changing economic projections and budget scoring based on potential macroeconomic effects of tax cuts) Boehner and others would cite to show more revenue. Economic growth is the only source of “increased revenue” that would not violate Grover Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge—signed by 236 members of Boehner’s caucus—because it’s a gimmick, not a revenue source, as my colleague Ethan Pollack recently explained.

Lastly, Boehner’s implied objectives of revenue and distributional neutrality—which guided the Tax Reform Act of 1986—are now wholly inappropriate benchmarks, as they would lock-in the past decade’s unaffordable and regressive Bush-era tax cuts and exacerbate Gilded-Age levels of income inequality. Much of our structural budget deficit and the ad hoc state of temporary tax cuts’ pending expiration stem from the 2001 and 2003 Bush-era tax cuts, which were, in a sense, “fast-tracked” with reconciliation (around the filibuster). Financing an extension of the Bush tax cuts with spending cuts (essentially maintaining revenue around 18 percent of GDP), as the Ryan budget effectively proposes, would require draconian spending cuts. Reducing revenue below current policy levels—the more likely outcome of the Camp-Ryan plan—would require implausibly deeper cuts and exacerbate the unsustainable long-run fiscal trajectory, grossly contradicting purported concern about budget deficits.

If Congress really is heading toward comprehensive tax reform in the next few years, policymakers need to be kept honest about what amounts to reform versus a tax cut. The United States simply can’t afford to let Congress fast-track another tax cut disguised as “tax reform.” And House Republicans are currently $4.5 trillion shy of proposing even revenue-neutral tax reform.