Congress Begins to Consider Reform of the AMT

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Earlier this week, the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Special Revenue Measures held its first hearing this year on the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), which is supposed to ensure that extremely wealthy people pay some minimal amount of taxes regardless of what loopholes they enjoy. But unless Congress acts, the AMT will soon affect some households who are upper-middle income but not super-rich. This is because the exemptions that shield most people from the AMT have never been permanently indexed for inflation, and because the Bush tax breaks changed the regular income tax calculation but not the AMT.

Congress has enacted temporary "patches" in recent years that extended the exemptions and increased them to keep up with inflation, but continuing this process would cost over $250 billion over the next four years. This cost would have to be offset if Congress is to stay within the PAYGO rules revived by the Democrats in the House shortly after they took control of Congress. The problem is that Republicans are responding to the situation by proposing to repeal the AMT entirely without paying for it, which could cost well over a trillion dollars over a decade.

Fingers Crossed for a Progressive, Budget-Neutral AMT Reform

Subcommittee Chairman Richard Neal (D-MA) indicated that a permanent reform will be proposed by the Democrats in a few weeks. It is not yet clear what that will look like, but Ways and Means chairman Charlie Rangel (D-NY) has hinted that a bill shielding more moderate-income families from the AMT could be paid for by redirecting some tax breaks away from the wealthiest taxpayers. Citizens for Tax Justice has proposed an AMT plan along those lines that would not change anything in the normal income tax rules, but other proposals have been suggested that would use new or higher regular income taxes on the wealthiest to pay for AMT reform.

Six Years Wasn't Long Enough for the Republicans to Fix the AMT

The subcommittee's ranking member, Phil English (R-PA), took the opportunity to argue that the AMT problem was the Democrats' fault. He pointed out that President Clinton vetoed an AMT repeal bill passed by the Republican Congress (that proposal would have repealed the AMT without offsetting the cost at a time when the administration was trying to balance the budget). Representative English did not explain how the Republicans managed to control every branch of government for six years without enacting a permanent solution in any of their six major tax bills. He also did not respond to the explanation that the Bush administration in 2001 intentionally chose to leave the AMT in place so as to make the cost of its first tax break appear less than it would really be after accounting for the AMT patches that Congress would inevitably enact.

The AMT essentially threatens to take the Bush tax breaks away from many Americans but leave them in place for the very richest (who, ironically, are not as likely to be affected by the AMT). Nonetheless, Representative English argued that any plan that would close loopholes used by the wealthy or raise taxes on the wealthy to pay for AMT reform would be "class warfare" and would be opposed by the Republicans.

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