Context Lacking in Presidential Town Hall Tax Debate


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The discussion over tax policy during Tuesday night’s town hall debate between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is a case study in how candidates can make selective use of facts. Below we bring some context to some of the most significant points made about tax policy during the debate.

Canada and the “High” Corporate Tax Rate

One area of unfortunate mutual agreement between Obama and Romney is, as Obama put it during the debate, that our corporate tax rate is “too high.” Backing this notion up, Romney noted that Canada’s corporate tax rate is now “15 percent” while the U.S.’s “35 percent” and thus leaves the U.S. in a less “competitive” position.

The primary problem is that both candidates are focusing on the statutory rate (the written law), which is relatively high in the United States, rather than the effective rate (the percentage of profits that corporations actually pay in taxes), which is far lower than the 35 percent statutory rate due to tax loopholes that plague our corporate tax system. In fact, Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ) has found that large profitable corporations pay about half the statutory rate on average, while some companies like General Electric and Verizon pay nothing at all in corporate taxes.

Turning back to Romney’s comparison of the U.S. corporate tax rate with Canada’s, a CTJ analysis of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) data actually found that the U.S. collects half as much in corporate tax revenue as Canada when measured as a percentage of GDP.

Rewriting the Legacy of George W. Bush

Getting to the core of many undecided voters’ concerns about his candidacy, one of the questioners asked Romney how his policies would differ from those of former President George W. Bush. Romney responded that he, unlike Bush, would balance the budget and that Obama had actually doubled the size of the annual Bush deficits.

What’s bizarre about this statement is that Romney is saying he will balance the budget, unlike Bush, while simultaneously doubling down on many of the same policies that drove the Bush deficits to begin with. For example, the Bush tax cuts added $2.5 trillion to the deficits between 2001-2010, yet Romney supports extending the entirety of the Bush tax cuts, which over the next ten year are estimated to cost $5.4 trillion (twice as much as in the first decade). Building on this, Romney is actually proposing roughly $5 trillion in more tax cuts over the next ten years, the costs of which he cannot offset without taxing the middle-class (which he pledges not to do).

Romney was also off base when he said that Obama doubled the federal budget deficit. For one, Obama came into office 3 months after the start of fiscal year 2009, and CBO had already projected a $1.2 trillion dollar deficit for that year. In addition, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out that the economic downturn, the bailouts, the war costs, and Bush-era tax cuts, all of which began under the Bush Administration, account for most of the budget deficit.

Taking an Interest in the Preferential Tax Rate for Capital Gains

During the discussion over which loopholes and deductions Romney would close, Obama rightfully noted that Romney has already taken off the table any option that would close or reduce the biggest tax loophole for the wealthy, the preferential rate for capital gains. As CTJ noted in a recent report, ending the preferential rate would improve tax fairness, raise revenue, and simplify the tax code. Surprisingly, Romney did not offer any defense of the preferential capital gains rate during the debate, which could be explained by the fact that he did not want to bring further attention to the fact that he personally saved $1.2 million in taxes due to the lower rate.

Instead of defending the merits of a lower rate, Romney instead highlighted his plan to eliminate taxes on interest, dividends, and capital gains for taxpayers with AGI below $200,000.  While this sounds like a boon to lower and middle-income taxpayers, the reality is that the only 6 percent of all capital gains income and 17 percent of dividend income is earned by the bottom 80 percent, so it would apply to relatively few taxpayers.

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