President Obama's First Budget: Not Perfect, But a Massive Improvement Over the Recent Past

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Revised March 4, 2009

On Thursday, President Obama sent his budget blueprint to Congress. While many of the details remain to be seen, it's the most progressive budget we've seen in years. It's also a more honest budget than the last administration ever proposed. For example, it doesn't pretend that the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) will expand its reach to tens of millions of additional taxpayers (which Congress never allows), and it includes the cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars instead of pretending that they will end this year.

It goes a long way towards making the tax system fairer and more progressive. The tax portion of the budget would allow the Bush tax cuts to expire for the very rich and includes revenue-raising provisions that are progressive, environmentally friendly and which, in some cases, would make the tax code simpler.

But the budget blueprint does muddle the cost of extending the Bush tax cuts for all but the top 2 percent of individual taxpayers by using a baseline that assumes the Bush tax cuts have already been made permanent, when in reality they are scheduled to expire at the end of 2010. (In other words, the Obama administration is using a baseline that assumes John McCain won the presidential election and his allies swept both chambers of Congress and were able to enact his tax policies!)

Continuing the Bush tax breaks for 98 percent of taxpayers and providing AMT relief will cost $2.6 trillion over the 10-year budget period. That's a steep price to pay for tax cuts that have not delivered their promised benefits. As the budget moves through Congress, we hope that the goal of long-term deficit reduction will prevail and the Bush tax breaks will be reduced even more. This could mean, for example, further raising the rates on capital gains and scaling back the cut in the estate tax. These changes would help move us towards the day when the government actually collects enough revenue to pay for the services it provides.

In addition to extending a lot of the Bush tax cuts and providing AMT relief, the President's budget would also provide around $770 billion in additional tax breaks targeted to working class people, plus over $70 billion in tax cuts for business. These are offset with several revenue-raising provisions, including a "cap and trade" program to limit carbon emissions, cleaning up the international tax system and eliminating loopholes for energy companies and other corporations.

These provisions are all included in the tax portion of the budget proposal. Other parts of the proposal include other revenue-raisers. For example, the budget includes a new provision that would limit the benefit of itemized deductions so that they could not reduce taxes by more than 28 percent (instead of, say, 35 percent for people rich enough to be affected by the 35 percent income tax rate). This provision would raise revenue to offset new health care spending.

This budget may not be perfect, but it does take several steps to find revenue to invest in our future and support working class families.

Next week, CTJ will provide a more detailed analysis of the President's budget and its tax provisions.

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