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Give House Ways & Means Committee Chair Dave Camp (R-MI) all the credit in the world for years of hard work developing his tax reform plan. Just don’t look too hard at the blueprint, which he released this afternoon.
On one level, it is a serious framework for reform. For individuals, it would consolidate and cut tax rates. According to the Joint Committee on Taxation, it would distribute the tax burden in roughly the same way as today’s law and raise about the same amount of money over the next decade. There is nothing magic about accomplishing either of these goals, but it is not easy to do and they provide a useful starting point for the reform debate.
However, the plan would get there through a combination of real cuts in tax preferences and an unsettling collection of gimmicks and fiscal legerdemain. And for a plan that is being billed as tax simplification, it is incredibly complicated—filled with phase-ins, phase-outs, surtaxes, and hidden tax rates.
Camp would eliminate the deduction for state and local taxes, cap the home mortgage interest deduction for loans in excess of $500,000, trim the Earned Income Tax Credit, end Head of Household filing, and repeal scores of smaller tax deductions and credits. These are real cuts in real tax preferences. And, whatever you think of their merits, Camp is finally taking the debate beyond the silly claim that rates can be cut be eliminating “loopholes.”
He’d also kill the Alternative Minimum Tax and redesign the taxation of capital gains and dividends. The first 40 percent of this investment income would be excluded from tax but the rest would be taxed at ordinary income rates. These too are important changes.
On the other hand, Camp claims he’s crunched the current seven-rate individual tax system to two rates 10 and 25 percent, a long-stated goal of many GOP leaders. But he really has three: 10 percent for single filers making less than $35,600($71,200 for joint filers), 25 percent for those making up to $400,000 ($450,000 for couples), and 35 percent for those making more than that.
But the story gets a lot more complicated—and more costly -- for many households. For instance, the plan would repeal the personal exemption. It would significantly raise the standard deduction for most taxpayers but phase it out for high-income households. It would also phase out the benefit of the 10 percent bracket and cap itemized deductions. All these changes would boost effective tax rates.
The 10 percent surtax on high-income individuals is in addition to the 3.8 percent levy on unearned income that was adopted as part of the 2010 Affordable Care Act (which Camp retains). In addition, the surtax would apply to income that is currently untaxed, such as the value of employer sponsored health insurance and the health deduction for the self-employed, municipal bond interest, untaxed Social Security benefits, and 401(k) contributions.
He’d also backload tax benefits for retirement savings. He’d bar new contributions to traditional and non-deductible IRAs but at the same time make everyone eligible to contribute to Roth IRAs. This would generate revenue in the early years since contributions would not be deductible. But because distributions from Roths are tax-free, such a design would increase future deficits by billions of dollars.
In all, Camp deserves a ton of credit. He’s spent years working on a reform plan. He toured the country promoting the idea and spent countless hours teaching fellow House Republicans what rewriting the code really means. Camp soldiered on despite a serious illness and severe constraints imposed by his own party leadership. In the end, House GOP bosses won’t even try to pass his bill.
And he did it all even though party rules will force him from the Ways & Means chairmanship at the end of this year. Yet, he persevered.
In the end, the details of Camp’s plan are less important than the fact that he wrote a plan. His framework, like the ones proposed by President George W. Bush’s orphaned tax reform commission, the Bowles-Simpson fiscal commission, the Bipartisan Policy Center, and others will help inform future efforts to rewrite the code. Think of Camp’s plan as one big step down a very long road.
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