Republican leaders in the Senate claim that they agree with the Democrats’ goal of extending a temporary reduction in interest rates on student loans, but oppose the Democrats’ proposal to offset the costs. But this proposal, which would close the “Newt Gingrich/John Edwards Loophole” used by owners of “S corporations” to avoid payroll taxes, is a reason to support the Senate Democrats’ bill, which was filibustered by Senate Republicans on Tuesday.
CTJ’s recent report on revenue-raising options explains the loophole (on pages 17-18) and explains a proposal from Congressman Pete Stark to close it. The Senate Democrats’ proposal to close the loophole is a little weaker (as explained below) but still certainly deserves support.
Income from work, including wages and salaries, is subject to federal payroll taxes (Social Security taxes and Medicare taxes). Some wealthy individuals, including (at one time) former presidential candidates John Edwards and Newt Gingrich, have used a loophole to make their earned income appear to be unearned income, in order to avoid payroll taxes. (This is particularly true of the Medicare tax because there is no cap on the amount of earnings subject to the Medicare tax.)
The scheme involves a type of business called an “S corporation,” which is distinguished from other corporations in that its profits are not subject to the corporate income tax but are simply included in the taxable income of the owners and therefore subject to the personal income tax. These profits should also be subject to payroll taxes when they are income from work, but an odd feature of S corporations allows some “active income” (income a business owner receives as a result of being involved in the operations of the business) to be characterized as income that is not earned and thus not subject to payroll taxes.
This is an invitation for abuse, and John Edwards accepted the invitation when he was a trial lawyer. He claimed that his name was an asset and that this asset (rather than his labor) was generating the income for his firm (which was an S corporation). Newt Gingrich’s recently released tax returns demonstrated that he, too, took advantage of this loophole.
To be sure, the Senate Democrats’ proposal doesn’t go as far as it should. It would apply the Medicare tax to this income only when the S corporation is “a professional service business in which more than 75% of its gross revenues come from the service of 3 or fewer shareholders.” The proposal is more restrictive than Congressman Stark’s bill in that it would apply to S corporation owners only if their adjusted gross income exceeds $250,000. It’s hard to see why anyone at any income level should be allowed to get away with this.
Nonetheless, the Senate Democrats’ proposal certainly sounds like it would, if in effect, have prevented John Edwards and Newt Gingrich from using this loophole to avoid payroll taxes. And that’s a reason to support the legislation, which may come up for a vote again according to Democratic leaders.