In the not-too-distant future, it’s entirely possible that jet packs will replace Segways as America’s preferred mode of personal travel, online dating will create matches so perfect as to eliminate the thrill of romantic conquest, and Republicans will rule the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives.
Martin Sullivan, who writes about tax as well as anyone, takes on the final possibility and reaches a surprising, but completely accurate, conclusion: even if Mitt Romney wins the presidential election this November and Republicans keep the House and retake the Senate, Romney’s proposed sweeping tax cuts are unlikely to become law.
And why not?
Because as we discussed here, tax cuts come at the price of reduced revenue, and given the current and budgeted deficit, lost revenue is something America can ill afford at the moment.
As a reminder, Romney is proposing to extend the Bush tax cuts, while also tacking on a 20% across-the-board reduction to each marginal rate. In addition, he would eliminate the tax on interest, dividends and capital gains for taxpayers earnings less than $200,000, eliminate the estate tax and the AMT, and cut the corporate rate to 25%.
Even if Democrats continue to control the Senate, Romney would be able to circumvent having his proposals blocked in the Senate by presenting them as “budget reconciliation bills,” essentially giving Romney carte blanche to enact any desired tax legislation.
But as Sullivan posits, Romney’s cuts are unlikely to become law due to their staggering price tag: $480 billion in lost revenue in 2015 alone. To enact his proposals without adding to the deficit, Romney would have to generate tax revenue elsewhere. To that end, he has privately disclosed his desire to broaden the tax base by eliminating some popular deductions, but Romney would have to do away with all of the popular deductions listed below, and many more, to cover the cost of his cuts. These deductions represent a mix of those backed by special interest groups (the mortgage deduction), and those that promote philanthropy (the charitable contribution deduction.) As a result, as Sullivan points out, “there is nothing in history to suggest that this is even a remote political possibility.”
Table 1. Official Revenue Estimates of Major Tax Expenditures
Tax Expenditure Fiscal 2015
|Deduction for mortgage interest||$113 billion|
|Charitable deduction||$57 billion|
|Deduction for state and local taxes||$85 billion|
|Exclusion for employer-provided health benefits||$176 billion|
Source: Joint Committee on Taxation, ‘‘Estimates of Federal Tax Expenditures for Fiscal Years 2011-2015,’’ Jan. 17, 2012, Doc 2012-894, 2012 TNT 11-21.
Sullivan goes on to nicely summarize the reality of our current economic morass and its impact on tax policy:
And that means that even if Romney wins and Republicans are running Congress, it is unlikely Washington will go on a tax cutting frenzy. Republicans may be unconstrained by Democrats, but they will be constrained by themselves. Basebroadening tax reform is not a battle of partisan politics but of special interest politics. And special interests will still be alive and well after a Republican sweep. If the Republicans try anything too gimmicky with how they score the tax cuts, alarm bells will sound in the bond market — something a president with close ties to Wall Street is unlikely to tolerate.
No doubt there will be spending cuts in social programs, but one must believe most of the savings will be devoted to deficit reduction. This is not 1981. This is not 2001. The next president, regardless of whether it is Obama or Romney, must put federal finances on a sustainable path. It is hard to see how a President Romney could propose a plan that significantly cuts taxes. If his plan must be revenue neutral, or close to it, the amount of rate reduction it can achieve will be severely limited.