Best and Worst Ideas for "Blank Slate" Tax Reform


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Here’s a look at some of the best and worst ideas that Senators submitted as part of the “blank slate” tax reform process proposed by Senators Max Baucus and Orrin Hatch, the chairman and ranking member of the tax-writing committee in the Senate. In theory, the “blank slate” is supposed to be an approach that assumes Congress is drawing the tax code completely from scratch, with no “tax expenditures” (subsidies provided through the tax code) and Senators were asked to explain which tax expenditures they would want to preserve in a newly reformed tax system.

Of course, this list is not comprehensive. Only a minority of Senators both submitted letters to Baucus and Hatch and made their letters public.

While CTJ has criticized Baucus and Hatch’s “blank slate” approach as ignoring the most crucial issue (the dire need for increased revenue), we have also put forward an approach to determine which tax expenditures should be repealed or preserved. Lawmakers should repeal tax expenditures that are regressive and serve no policy goals, preserve tax expenditures like the EITC that are progressive and do accomplish policy goals, and reform those tax expenditures that fall somewhere in between. CTJ has also explained that revenue should be raised by closing tax expenditures for corporations, particularly those that encourage corporations to shift jobs and profits offshore.

Some Senators, like Bernie Sanders and Jay Rockefeller, submitted letters very much in agreement with our approach. Others, like Jeff Flake, Mike Enzi and Mike Crapo, submitted letters that run completely counter to our approach. 

Worst Idea Submitted: Enact the Ryan Plan

Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona proposes that tax reform follow the approach taken by the House budget plan (also known as the Ryan plan), which would replace our progressive personal income tax rates with two rates of just 10 percent and 25 percent, and would lower the corporate income tax rate to 25 percent. CTJ has frequently pointed out that the Ryan plan would reduce taxes on the very rich no matter how the details are filled in, which means low- or middle-income people would have to pay more if the frequently cited goal of revenue-neutrality is to be achieved.

Senator Flake also repeats several myths about how certain types of income, like corporate stock dividends, are allegedly double-taxed. (CTJ has explained why dividends are rarely, if ever, double-taxed.)

Worst Proposal to EXPAND a Tax Expenditure for Corporations: Enact a “Territorial” Tax System

Senator Mike Enzi of Wyoming calls for enactment of his legislation, S. 2091 from the 112th Congress, to create a territorial tax system. In this context, a “territorial” tax system, which is also endorsed by Senator Mike Crapo of Idaho, is a euphemistic way of describing an exemption of offshore corporate profits from U.S. taxes.

Right now, U.S. corporations already get a big break from the rule that allows them to “defer” paying U.S. taxes on the profits of their offshore subsidiaries until those profits are brought to the U.S. “Deferral” is one of the biggest tax expenditures for corporations and, as we have explained, it encourages American corporations to shift operations offshore or engage in accounting gimmicks to make their U.S. profits appear to be generated in a country like Bermuda or the Cayman Islands that won’t tax them. Expanding deferral into an exemption for offshore profits would only increase these terrible incentives.

Worst Proposal to EXPAND a Tax Expenditure for Individuals: Cut Rates for Capital Gains

The letter from Senator Mike Crapo of Idaho lauds the approach to tax reform taken by the Simpson-Bowles plan — which would remove most tax expenditures and adopt a set of low rates — but then proposes to increase the most regressive tax expenditure of all, the preferential income tax rate for capital gains and stock dividends. A recent CTJ report explains that 68 percent of the benefits of this tax expenditure are estimated to go the richest one percent of Americans this year.

Senator Crapo also believes that further reducing the tax rates on capital gains and dividends will “stimulate investment, capital formation, and additional revenue.” Senator Crapo is referring to the argument made by Arthur Laffer that cutting tax rates on capital gains causes revenue to actually increase. The CTJ report explains that this idea has been disproven time and again by the revenue statistics.

Best Ideas for Ending Tax Expenditures: Eliminate Deferral and Preferential Rates for Capital Gains and Dividends

The letter from Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont includes several proposals, and among the most significant are repeal of deferral and repeal of the preferential personal income tax rate for capital gains and stock dividends for the rich. Senator Sanders cites the two terrible incentives that deferral creates and that have already been mentioned (incentives to shift jobs offshore and make U.S. profits appear to be generated in offshore tax havens) and also explains that the capital gains and dividends break is the reason why wealthy investors like Warren Buffett can pay lower effective tax rates than many middle-income people.

Best Articulation of Key Principles for Tax Reform: Increase Progressivity and Raise Revenue

Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia writes that his “highest priority for tax reform is to reduce income inequality.” While he praises Senators Baucus and Hatch for committing to maintain the tax code’s current progressivity, “we must go further, by requiring the wealthiest individuals and businesses to contribute more.” He writes that, “While incomes for the top one percent soared over the past two decades, effective tax rates for these same individuals declined dramatically,” and that “too many giant corporations pay no tax...”

Senator Rockefeller also writes that some tax expenditures like the EITC provide a “solid foundation for increasing opportunity and upward mobility for people who are low-income...” The recent CTJ report on individual tax expenditures explains how the EITC is the most progressive tax expenditure and is extremely effective at accomplishing policy goals like encouraging work. 

Finally, Senator Rockefeller is refreshingly candid about the uselessness of any debate over tax reform that does not lead to increased revenue. “I can assure you that I will not support tax reform that does not raise real, sustainable revenue,” he writes. “Frankly, I would rather the tax reform process be delayed for another Congress than pass a bad bill this year that raises inadequate revenue.”

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