5 Things to Know About the Final Republican Tax Reform Bill
On Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a historic Republican tax reform bill, after a Democrat tantrum in the U.S. Senate delayed the bill. President Donald Trump is expected to sign it at any moment.
Democrats have pushed a constant narrative that the GOP tax reform would hurt the poor and middle class while benefitting the wealthy, corporations, and Republican donors. This narrative is false.
Here are five things the tax reform bill actually does, and why Democrat posturing has actually harmed government revenues, poor college students at a particular college, and homeschool families.
1. Huge income tax cuts for the middle class.
The Republican tax bill will slash income tax rates across the board, but the middle class will experience the greatest tax cuts. The Cato Institute's Chris Edwards noted that under the bill, "higher earners will pay an even larger share of the overall income tax burden than they do now. Our highly 'progressive' income tax will be even more progressive."
Edwards pointed out that the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) released an analysis of the final bill, but that the JCT slanted the results by including payroll and excise taxes.
According to Edwards' analysis, the income tax changes will deliver huge benefits to those making between $40,000 and $75,000 per year, and much smaller cuts for people who earn even more money.
Income under $40,000 is not taxed at the federal level. Overall, those who make between $40,000 and $50,000 would pay $11.9 billion in 2019 under the current tax scheme. Under the new tax bill, they will pay $6.7 billion less — a tax cut of 56.3 percent. Those who make between $50,000 and $75,000 currently would pay $90.3 million, but they will pay $23 billion less, a 25.5 percent cut.
Even those who make $75,000 to $100,000 will experience an 18.1 percent tax cut. Those who make $1 million or more per year will experience the largest dollar amount cut ($36.9 billion overall), but their percentage cut will only amount to 6.4 percent.
Democrats can, if they wish to be dishonest, note that the wealthiest earners will get the greatest "cut" in dollar terms. This would be extremely misleading, however — as the percentage makes the most difference.
Currently, 70 percent of federal income taxes are collected from the top 10 percent of earners. The middle class does not pay that much income tax, and the Republican tax bill would cut the amount they do pay even further.
2. Corporate taxes slashed.
Democrats seem to have a much stronger case when it comes to corporate tax rates. The Republican tax reform bill will indeed cut the corporate tax rate, but that does not mean it is a special interest gift to big business.
The United States of America has the highest statutory corporate tax rate in the developed world — 39 percent (including state-level taxes). As National Review's Robert VerBruggen pointed out, corporations actually pay roughly 29 percent, due to various loopholes and carve-outs.
This system is unacceptable, not just because the rates are high, but because the loopholes make the system harder to navigate. Such complexity enables well-connected businesses to manipulate the tax system, twisting economic benefits in a perverse fashion.
Republicans and Democrats have agreed that it would be good to decrease the corporate tax rate, perhaps to the mid 20s, while eliminating loopholes and changing the way the U.S. taxes companies on income they earn abroad.
The Republican tax bill achieves this, but it cuts the rate all the way down to 21 percent, a more controversial proposition. Democrats complain that this will bleed revenue to benefit the rich, while Republicans claim this lower rate will spark economic growth.
Lowering such taxes will enable businesses to compete more effectively overseas, to invest more of their earnings in the company, and to hire more workers. These benefits likely will lead to an economic increase, even if the wealthy will profit from it. This does not mean the growth will not help the less fortunate, however.
If U.S. businesses become more competitive overseas and if they reinvest their profits in their businesses, they will be able to hire more workers and add more value to the U.S. economy. This wealth may not seem to "trickle down," but it really does benefit others.
According to a Heritage Foundation study, a lower corporate tax rate will make investing in the U.S. more attractive. It will minimize distortions in financial markets. Finally, it will boost investments overall, increasing the stock market value of retirement and other accounts, thus helping families who invest for various purposes. A lower corporate tax rate means more jobs, economic activity, and investment dividends.
3. Repealing the Obamacare individual mandate.
Earlier this year, Republicans failed to pass a bill which would allegedly repeal the "Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act," also known as Obamacare. The tax reform bill will achieve a significant part of this monumental goal, however.
The least popular provision in Obamacare is the individual mandate. If an individual fails to buy health insurance, he or she must pay a penalty of $695 (and higher for families) or 2.5 percent of his or her household income, whichever is higher, but capped at the national average cost of the most basic, low-premium, high-deductible plan.
During Obama's presidency, the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) challenged the penalty on constitutional grounds. NFIB argued that the penalty, which aims to ensure that all Americans are buying into the health care system, was unconstitutional, as it forced Americans to buy a service.
In the 2012 case NFIB v. Sebelius, the Supreme Court struck down the original justification for the individual mandate, but ruled that the mandate was a constitutional use of Congress' power to tax. In a stunning twist, Chief Justice John Roberts accepted the Obama administration's claim that the mandate was a tax, and therefore was constitutional.
This was a Pyrrhic victory, however, as the Supreme Court decision opened the door for this Republican Congress to eviscerate a key Obamacare provision in a tax reform bill. While Republicans were not able to "repeal and replace" Obamacare, they will have repealed a fundamental part of Obama's signature health care law, and so have at least one concrete policy victory to tout in the 2018 elections.
4. Deductions and credits.
The Republican tax reform bill also makes wide-ranging alterations to simplify complexities in the tax code. They represent a step in the right direction, but are incomplete and hard to understand.
Under current tax law, taxpayers who do not itemize deductions may apply a "standard deduction" to subtract from their income before income tax is applied. Under current law, the standard deduction for single taxpayers is $6,350 and for married couples filing jointly it is $12,700, according to a Bloomberg analysis. Personal exemptions of $4,050 are allowed for every family member.
The Republican tax reform would increase the standard deductions to $12,000 for single taxpayers and $24,000 for married couples who file jointly. The bill will pay for this increase by repealing personal exemptions. This will simplify the way standard deductions are calculated.
Controversially, the bill changes the way individuals can deduct state and local taxes (SALT). Under current law, individuals can deduct the SALT they pay from their income for federal tax purposes. This deduction is limited for higher earners. Under the GOP tax bill, individuals will be able to deduct no more than $10,000 worth of SALT deductions.
This simplifies the tax code, but will cost taxpayers in high-tax states and localities, who will be unable to deduct as much from their income before it falls under federal income tax. Some have blamed Republicans for abandoning their fellow party members in high-tax liberal states like California and New York.
The tax reform bill will help people who pay a hefty amount for medical expenses. Under current law, medical expenses that cost more than 10 percent of a taxpayer's adjusted gross income can be deducted from that income for federal tax purposes. The Republican bill will lower that threshold to 7.5 percent for 2017 and 2018.
Tax reform will also double the child tax credit. Current law gives each family a $1,000 credit for each child under 17, and phases that credit out for couples earning more than $110,000. The reform bill will double the credit to $2,000 and provide it for each child under 18 through 2024. It will also increase the phase-out amount to $400,000.
The alternative minimum tax (AMT) adds more taxation on top of the baseline income tax for certain taxpayers with exemptions or special circumstances. AMT is imposed at a nearly flat rate on the adjusted amount of taxable income over a certain threshold. Under current law, individual AMT applies after an exemption level of $54,300 for singles and $84,500 for married couples filing jointly. At higher incomes, these exemptions phase out.
Under the tax reform bill, the exemption will rise to $70,300 for singles and $109,400 for joint filers. The phase-out threshold will be $500,000 for singles and $1 million for joint filers. These limits will expire in January 2026.
Finally, the tax reform bill will apply the estate tax (also known as the "death tax") to fewer people. Current law applies a 40 percent tax on estates worth more than $5.49 million for individuals and $10.98 million for couples. The tax reform bill would double the thresholds until 2026, so fewer people would have to pay that 40 percent tax before passing on assets to their inheritors.
5. The concrete cost of Democrat complaints.
In perhaps the largest weakness, the Republican tax reform bill will cost the government a great deal in revenues. It is feasible that economic growth from the tax cut will boost the economy, and that that economic growth will help raise more taxes, thus not cutting federal revenues quite as much as predicted.
While the Republican tax bill will cost the federal government money, so will Democrat complaints about it. Democrat complaints will also cost a college that uses its endowment to provide an education without cost to low-income students. Finally, they will also cost hundreds of thousands of homeschool families in an unjust double standard.
The new tax bill will levy a tax on the endowments of wealthy private colleges. The endowment tax specifies that only colleges eligible to receive federal funding under Title IV of the 1965 Higher Education Act would be taxed, so some Republican legislators argued that the tax is not meant to apply to colleges that do not accept Title IV funds, such as Hillsdale College.
A procedural fix to clarify this passed, but Democrats complained that it was a "carve-out" for "a pet project" of the DeVos family. They got the amendment repealed, but another amendment raised the cap for the endowment tax (from $250,000 per student to $500,000 per student endowments). Hillsdale College won't have to pay the tax anyway, but the federal government will lose out on a lot more tax revenue, just because Democrats made this an issue.
In a last-minute complaint, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) forced changes to tax reform that would hurt the poor and homeschooling families.
The endowment tax originally only applied to colleges with "tuition-paying" students, but the Sanders-Wyden complaint struck that language. This will impact only one school: Kentucky's Berea College. This college uses its massive endowment to offer low-income students a tuition-free college experience. By ensuring that this endowment is taxed, Sanders and Wyden directly damaged poor students in Kentucky.
Similarly, tax reform included a provision extending the use of 529 education savings accounts to tuition for K-12 education: private schools, public schools, and home schools. Sanders and Wyden struck homeschooling from this list. Rather than insisting that 529s, originally for college tuition, should not extend to K-12 education, they specifically targeted homeschooling.
Democrats complain that the Republican tax reform will hurt the poor, benefit the rich, and cost the government money, but their complaints will harm homeschooling families, poor students in Kentucky, and federal revenues.
Tax reform is far from perfect, but Democratic opposition has done concrete harm. While the Republican bill will likely boost economic growth, Democrat attacks will have no mitigating benefit.