The Senate is poised to add a hundred billion dollars to the federal budget deficit by enacting more tax cuts. Democratic Senate leaders have stated that they believe new tax cuts should be paid for, but many Republicans insist on blocking any bill that increases anyone's tax bill, even if the legislation merely closes an egregious tax loophole. Their blocking tactics can succeed in the Senate, where a minority of 41 lawmakers can block most legislation. The House of Representatives, which is governed by the majority rule principle recognized by most modern democracies but not in the U.S. Senate, has passed legislation that includes most of these tax cuts but also includes revenue-raising provisions to offset their costs.
Senate leaders have apparently made a deal that would allow them to enact relief from the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) for a year and extensions of several temporary tax cuts targeted to various special interests (often called the tax extenders) at a cost of around $130 billion, and including a revenue-raising provision that would offset just $25 billion of that cost. The Senate is scheduled to take several votes on Tuesday, including one to provide AMT relief with the costs fully offset by revenue-raising provisions, but this is expected to fail because a minority of Senators will block it. The Senate is then expected to move on to approve AMT relief that is not paid for.
Important Revenue-Raising Provision Would Crack Down on Tax Avoidance Through Deferred Compensation
The revenue-raiser is certainly a worthy provision. It would shut down offshore tax schemes that help the already highly compensated avoid taxes on their deferred compensation. Generally, when a company pays into a deferred compensation plan for an employee, if that plan is "non-qualified" (meaning it exceeds certain limits that the super-compensated don't want to deal with) the company cannot take a tax deduction for the payment until it is actually received as income in later years by the employee. But some have figured out how to have their deferred compensation routed through an offshore entity in some tax haven so that there is no tax paid to the U.S. government or any other government, so not being able to deduct the payment is not an issue. This provision would make the deferred compensation in this situation immediately taxable to the individual, so that there would no longer be an incentive to use this scheme.
But this provision, worthy as it is, pays for less than a fifth of the total cost of the tax cuts included in the bill. The Bush administration and its allies in Congress have promoted the bizarre idea that any tax cut that is enacted for one year can be extended indefinitely without offsetting the cost because such an extension is merely "preventing a tax increase."
Republican Leaders Are Shocked -- Shocked I Tell You! -- that the AMT Will Affect More Taxpayers
This is most ludicrous in the case of AMT relief. The AMT is basically a backstop tax geared towards getting well-off people to pay some minimum tax no matter how proficient they are at finding tax loopholes to reduce or wipe out their tax liability. Tax liability is calculated under the regular rules and the AMT rules, and you only have to pay the AMT if your AMT liability exceeds your regular income tax liability. For most people who are not rich, this is usually not an issue. But the Bush administration chose to lower the regular income tax without making any permanent change to the AMT, so of course that means that more people are going have to pay the AMT. Another problem, albeit a less important one, is that inflation is eating away at the value of the exemptions that keep most of us from paying the AMT. The Clinton administration increased these exemptions, but no permanent increase in those exemptions has been made during the Bush years.
The AMT will affect over 20 million people this year if Congress does not act. In recent years Congress has passed several temporary "patches" to the AMT to prevent this from happening, and this year's patch will cost over $60 billion.
The Bush administration chose to not include a permanent fix to the AMT in its tax plan in 2001 because that would have increased the cost of the proposal. During George W. Bush's first presidential campaign in 2000, CTJ's initial analysis of the governor's tax proposal assumed that it did include a fix to the AMT, but Bush's advisers insisted that this was not true. Of course, we have ended up paying for AMT relief anyway, the only difference is that now President Bush and his allies can pretend that the need for AMT relief was entirely unexpected and that this somehow means it can be deficit-financed.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities helps us out with a little history lesson. This is what Senate Finance Committee ranking Republican Charles Grassley said in January of last year. It typifies what the President and his allies have been saying about the AMT:
"It's ridiculous to rely on revenue that was never supposed to be collected in the first place... It's unfair to raise taxes to repeal something with serious unintended consequences like the AMT."
Compare this to what Senator Grassley said when the first Bush tax cut bill was being debated:
"Roughly one in seven taxpayers will come under the shadow of the Alternative Minimum Tax by the end of the decade... That figure will significantly be higher if President Bush's tax plan is adopted, and that is according to the Joint Tax Committee of the Congress."
The Tax Extenders and Other Tax Cuts -- Some Bad, Some Good
The extenders include all sorts of handouts that either subsidize businesses that don't need subsidies (like the research credit), cut taxes in ways that are not particularly progressive (like the deduction for state sales taxes and the deduction for tuition which really only benefits fairly well-off families), or just offer very trivial benefits (like the provision allowing teachers to deduct $250 in classroom expenses, which yields a benefit of about $60 for teachers lucky enough to be in the 25 percent bracket). CTJ has explained in detail why Congress would be better off ending the ritual of passing "extenders" and should simply let these provisions expire.
There are surely some good provisions in the bill as well. A portion of the tax cuts (about six percent) are targeted towards disaster relief. One particularly progressive provision would make it easier for low-income people to receive the refundable portion of the child credit. Over a thousand organizations from all over the country supported this provision, including CTJ. This improvement in the child credit accounts for only around 2 percent of the cost of the entire bill, and we certainly wish that progressive provisions like this made up a much larger proportion of the tax legislation coming out of Congress lately.
Energy Tax Provisions
The Senate will also vote on a package of extensions and modifications of energy tax breaks on Tuesday. This package at least includes revenue-raising provisions to offset its $17 billion cost. One would limit -- but not eliminate -- the use of the section 199 deduction for manufacturing by oil and gas companies. (Apparently many Senators still believe that pumping oil or gas is "manufacturing" and scaled back an earlier proposal that would completely stop the energy companies from using the manufacturing deduction). Another requires securities brokers to report the "basis" of securities they buy and sell, which will help prevent evasion of capital gains taxes.
While some environmental organizations are applauding this package of incentives for everything from wind and solar power to electric cars, other green groups have thrown cold water on the party by criticizing the compromises that were made leading to passage.
"Unfortunately," wrote the president of the National Wildlife Federation in a letter to the Senate, "by including sweeping new federal subsidies for oil shale, tar sands and liquid coal refining, the bill no longer represents the kind of progress America needs to confront global warming."