The problem with Democrats’ approach to tax reform is that they want to increase taxes, and their plans would generally stymie growth. The problem with Republicans’ approach to tax reform is that their plans, while pro-growth, too often neglect Main Street Americans and too often aren’t fiscally sound.
The ideal tax plan would be pro-growth, pro-American worker, and pro-fiscal responsibility. It would help us grow our way out of debt, not deeper into it, while benefiting the typical American. Unfortunately, such plans are hard to come by.
The best thing about the recently released House Republican tax plan is that it would jump-start the economy after seven years of historically poor growth under President Obama, who ranks last in that department among the 12 postwar presidents. The worst thing about the House GOP tax plan is that it would impose a backdoor tax hike on millions of middle-class homeowners.
According to the nonpartisan Tax Foundation, the House GOP tax plan would increase the size of the U.S. economy by 9.1 percent within a decade (in addition to growth that would otherwise have occurred). That’s well over $2 trillion in increased growth—a great improvement in American prosperity.
In terms of bang for the buck, the Tax Foundation finds that the House GOP plan would increase GDP by 3.8 percent (over ten years) for every $1 trillion in tax cuts. That trails the Main Street Tax Plan (7.0 percent GDP growth for every $1 trillion in tax cuts), which I introduced at the Hudson Institute, but it ties Ted Cruz’s plan (3.8 percent) and beats the plans advanced by Marco Rubio (2.5 percent) and Donald Trump (1 percent). (Trump will apparently be releasing a new plan soon that will likely score better.) Hillary Clinton’s tax plan, meanwhile, would increase taxes and decrease growth.
The House GOP plan would fuel growth by cutting the corporate tax rate from 35 to 20 percent, making 25 percent the new top rate on small businesses that are taxed like individuals, and allowing full expensing of capital investments. It would eliminate the business tax deduction for interest paid, thereby ending the tax code’s preference for debt-financing (and making the plan more fiscally sound). And it would shift from a “worldwide” to a “territorial” tax system, whereby U.S. companies operating abroad would have to pay foreign corporate taxes but not U.S. corporate taxes (although a hybrid “worldwide”/“territorial” system would likely be better for American workers).
Like most conservative tax plans, however, the House GOP plan would benefit the top one percent—according to the Tax Foundation—more than it would benefit the typical American. (In comparison, the Tax Foundation finds that the Main Street Tax Plan would benefit the typical American twice as much as the top one percent.)
In particular, the House GOP plan would raise taxes on millions of middle-class homeowners, especially upper-middle-class homeowners. Such residents are historically a core GOP constituency and are now often swing voters. Whether policy-wise or from a political standpoint, it seems strange that Republicans would want to raise their taxes.
But that’s exactly what the House GOP tax plan would do. Take a married couple that has two children and makes $130,000 a year (roughly the equivalent of making $58,000 in the middle of the Reagan years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). Say that this family pays $1,500 a month in mortgage interest, pays 5 percent in state income taxes (with the state allowing the same deductions and exemptions as the federal government, except for the deduction for state income taxes), pays $5,000 in property taxes, gives $6,000 to charity, and has no other deductions.
Under current law, this family would have paid a total of $14,545 in federal income and Medicare taxes in 2015 (including the employer’s share of the Medicare tax). (I’m excluding Social Security payroll tax from these calculations because Social Security is largely a pay-in-for-yourself program that should be evaluated separately.) Under the House GOP plan, they instead would have paid $17,533—a $2,988 increase. That’s a big tax hike to expect this family to accept and still vote Republican. Under the Main Street Tax Plan, in comparison, they would have paid only $11,533—a $3,012 tax cut versus current law and a whopping $6,000 tax cut versus the House GOP plan.
Homeowners with lower or higher incomes would also fare poorly. If that same family were to have made $60,000, paid $1,000 a month in mortgage interest, paid $3,000 in property tax, and given $2,000 to charity, they would have faced a $395 tax hike (from $2,665 to $3,060) under the House GOP plan, while they would have gotten a $687 tax cut (to $1,978)—more than a $1,000 swing versus the House GOP plan—under the Main Street Tax Plan. A family making $200,000 (with everything else being the same as for the family making $130,000) would have seen their taxes raised by $5,863 under the House GOP plan (from $34,200 under current law to $40,063), while the Main Street Tax Plan would have cut their taxes by $5,945 (to $28,255)—a swing of nearly $12,000 versus the House GOP plan.
To be clear, the House GOP plan preserves the mortgage interest deduction. But it would raise taxes on homeowners because it would strip away almost everything around the mortgage interest deduction that makes it worthwhile. Under current law, those who itemize their taxes—and hence can claim the mortgage interest deduction—lose the standard deduction but can still claim the personal exemption ($4,000 per person in 2015). Under the House GOP plan, the personal exemption would effectively be collapsed into the standard deduction. Those who didn’t itemize wouldn’t notice much of a difference, but those who did itemize would no longer get to claim the personal exemption. For a family of four in the 25 percent marginal tax bracket, that’s a $4,000 tax increase right there (25 percent of $16,000).
Moreover, the House GOP plan would no longer allow taxpayers to deduct payments for state or local taxes. This is a good thing (the Main Street Tax Plan does the same), as allowing such deductions is a boon for high-tax states. But unlike the Main Street Tax Plan, the House GOP plan doesn’t offer much of anything in return for everyday Americans. The Main Street Tax Plan offers three key things: it reduces the first quarter of the 25 percent tax bracket to 20 percent; offers a child tax deduction of $2,000 per child, paired with halving the current child tax credit and no longer income-testing it (tax credits are highly progressive and should never be income-tested); and eliminates the Medicare payroll tax. (The Medicare payroll tax is a needless de facto second income tax. It only covers a little over a third of Medicare’s costs, and if it isn’t eliminated—with Medicare entirely financed out of general revenues—then it should be roughly tripled so that it does cover Medicare’s costs.)
In contrast, the House GOP plan doesn’t eliminate the Medicare payroll tax. It doesn’t offer a child tax deduction, although it does slightly increase the income-threshold for the child tax credit. (It also needlessly increases the value of that credit—it’s already high enough that a family of five making $55,000 pays no income taxes whatsoever and gets a check come tax time—but by far less than under Rubio’s plan). And it actually widens the 10-point gap between the 15 to 25 percent brackets—already the biggest jump in marginal tax rates in the current tax code—to 13 points (from 12 to 25 percent).
The House GOP plan also doesn’t eliminate the marriage penalty. If a man and a woman, one of them with a kid, each made $70,000 and got married last year, then they collectively got a federal tax hike of $3,209 for exchanging their vows. Under the House GOP plan, their marriage penalty would have been nearly as high—$3,157. That’s because the House GOP plan keeps in place the head-of-household filing status, which distorts the whole tax code. Under the Main Street Tax Plan, which (like the Rubio plan) would eliminate the head-of-household filing status, this couple—and other couples—wouldn’t face a marriage penalty.
Still, the House GOP plan deserves credit for avoiding some of the excesses or deficiencies of other Republican plans. According to the Tax Foundation, the tax plan released by former-Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp would increase growth by just 0.2 percent. The plans championed by Ted Cruz and Rand Paul would introduce a value-added tax. The non-VAT plans put out by the Republican presidential candidates would increase the debt by more than $1 trillion apiece—even after accounting for increased growth—compared with just $191 billion for the House GOP plan. (The Main Street Tax Plan would reduce the debt by $679 billion.) The tax plan advanced by Rubio would cut to $0 the income-tax bill of a family of six (with married parents) making $100,000, and then send them a $3,000 check on April 15 (and even more if they own a home). At the same time, it would slightly increase taxes for a single person making $20,000, some of which would help finance that bounty for the 6-person family with the 6-figure income.
The House GOP plan merits praise for being pro-growth, being relatively fiscally sound, eschewing a VAT, and not embracing Rubio-level bloated child tax credits that would skew the whole code. However, the House GOP plan is awfully hard on homeowners. It benefits the top one percent more than the median American. It doesn’t eliminate the marriage penalty. And it would still increase the debt, albeit only slightly.
In terms of spurring economic prosperity, the House Republican tax plan is a big step in the right direction. But surely the GOP can do better.