On Thursday, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-NY) released the outlines of a $275 billion tax cut package to be included with a larger stimulus bill that Democratic leaders hope to enact by President's Day. In many ways it is an improvement over the proposal initially floated by the Obama transition team, but it also keeps many of Obama's ill-advised tax cuts for business that will have little or no stimulative effect on the economy.
Most economists believe that the current economic downturn is largely the result of a collapse in demand for goods and services, and that direct government spending can boost demand and prevent the recession from becoming more severe and destructive. Tax cuts are less effective because it's difficult to ensure that they will result in the sort of immediate spending needed to boost demand quickly. But if tax cuts can at least be targeted to those people who are likely to spend the extra money right away (like low-income families), then they could have a decent chance of accomplishing the goal of stimulating the economy.
More Progressive Tax Cuts for Families
Last week, Citizens for Tax Justice released a report that showed how some of Obama's proposed tax cuts would be targeted to those who would likely spend the money right away (thus immediately pumping the money into the economy) while others were more likely to be ineffective giveaways to business. Obama's proposed Making Work Pay Credit would reach people at lower income levels, but it would not be particularly targeted towards the bottom half of the income ladder. (The poorest 60 percent of taxpayers would only get 48 percent of the benefits while the richest 20 percent would get 25 percent of the benefits.) A proposal to increase the availability of the refundable portion of the $1,000 Child Tax Credit looked more promising because nearly all of the benefits would go to the poorest 60 percent.
The Ways and Means Committee proposal improves on Obama's tax cuts for individuals. For example, the improvement in the Child Tax Credit (CTC) would be even more progressive. Under current law, some working families who pay federal payroll taxes but who do not earn enough to owe federal income taxes are actually too poor to benefit from the CTC. That's because people with no income tax liability do not benefit from a tax credit unless it is refundable, and the refundable portion of the CTC is limited to 15 percent of earnings above $12,550 in 2009. The Ways and Means Committee proposal would remove that earnings threshold so that the refundable portion of the CTC is equal to 15 percent of all earnings (with the maximum credit limit unchanged at $1,000 per child).
The refundable Making Work Pay Credit, which Obama proposed during his campaign and which would generally offer working people $500 (or $1,000 for a couple if both spouses work), is also included. A new addition to the package is an improvement in the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). It is unclear at this time how extensive the change in the EITC will be. (It may be similar to the EITC expansion Obama proposed during his campaign.) But it's quite clear that expanding the EITC is a promising way to put money in the hands of families who have probably cut back on purchasing all sorts of needed goods and services and who will therefore spend that money quickly.
Tax Cuts for Business: One Bad Idea Dropped, Several Others Included
The Ways and Means proposal does not include Obama's proposed refundable $3,000 tax credit for businesses that create jobs, which was roundly criticized as unworkable. Democrats in the House and Senate are said to have been doubtful that the credit could possibly be implemented in a way that did not result in a huge tax giveaway for companies that were merely hiring people they would hire anyway.
Unfortunately, many other business tax cuts in Obama's proposal that CTJ and others criticized are included in the Ways and Means package. Earlier attempts at using bonus depreciation to boost the economy have proven to be ineffective, but lawmakers apparently insist on this giveaway to business-owners. A 2006 Federal Reserve study reached a similar conclusion to our own findings, finding that previous versions of this tax break had "only a very limited impact... on investment spending, if any." Worse, the proposal would allow businesses to use their losses to reduce taxes they already paid going back five years (the current limit is two years). As Dean Baker explains, this tax cut must have even less stimulative effect than other business tax cuts because it does nothing to change the incentives of business-owners or investors going forward. The net operating loss carryback provision simply hands money to businesses without requiring any sort of investment (or anything) in return.
House Democratic Proposal Would Rescind the Infamous "Wells Fargo Ruling"
Another provision in the package would reverse IRS Notice 2008-83, also called the "Wells Fargo ruling" after its largest beneficiary. In October, the IRS issued this two-page notice declaring, with no authorization from Congress, that banks could ignore a section of the tax code enacted under President Reagan to prevent abusive tax shelters. In December, over a hundred organizations signed a letter to the House and Senate asking them to rescind the Wells Fargo ruling. That call is now being answered.
The Ways and Means package contains provisions addressing many other needs, including a partially refundable credit for higher education, increased availability of bonds for state and local government, energy tax incentives, child support funding and many others.