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I’ve been reviewing the tax plans of the major Republican presidential hopefuls and am struck at how conventional Mitt Romney’s is. While Herman Cain wants to replace the entire federal tax code with his 9-9-9 consumption tax and Rick Perry favors a massive tax cut, Romney would do little more than tinker around the edges of the current law. In short, he seems pretty happy with the individual tax code while he supports more business tax cuts.
You can see how all the GOP candidates line up in a nice matrix put together by my Tax Policy Center colleagues. And looking at them in one place really is eye opening. While Cain and Perry would effectively blow up the current code (Perry would still let you pay under the existing system for a few more years), Romney would essentially keep it.
With all the attention garnered by Perry and Cain, Romney’s cautious tax agenda has floated under the radar. And that is, I suspect, exactly where he prefers it.
For individuals, Romney would extend the 2001/2003/2010 tax law. He promises to lower ordinary income tax rates—but to unspecified levels at some unidentified time in the future. He’d keep refundable credits such as the Earned Income Credit and Child Credit that provide income support for low-wage workers but have come under stiff criticism from some in the GOP.
He’d eliminate taxes on capital gains and dividends, but only for those making $200,000 or less. And Romney is silent on what he’d do about the Alternative Minimum Tax or individual deductions, credits, and exclusions. By contrast, both Cain and Perry would dump the AMT and sharply scale back individual tax subsidies.
Romney is more ambitious when it comes to corporations. He’d cut their rate to 25 percent from the current top rate of 35 percent, add a new temporary investment tax credit and allow firms to continue to fully write off the cost of capital investments in the year they make them. He doesn’t say how all this would work, but allowing firms full expensing, adding an investment credit, and letting them continue to take an interest deduction all on the same equipment would result in massive subsidies on capital purchases.
These corporate tax cuts would also dramatically increase the deficit. Romney says he’d end some business tax breaks but doesn’t say how or when. He also promises to move to a territorial system, where only income earned in the U.S. would be subject to U.S. corporate income tax. But again he provides no details.
Is this a winning political hand? Romney, who appears to have the inside track to the GOP nomination, is betting that he can win the nod without proposing the kind of hot-button reforms Perry and Cain have offered. That would be a decided advantage in a general election race, where many independents may recoil from the aggressive Perry or Cain plans.
The question is whether one of his more conservative opponents can do well enough in the coming months to force him to embrace something like a flat tax.
Romney clearly doesn’t want to do it. It will be interesting to see if he has to.
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