Major Federal Tax Issues Left to Be Resolved as 2009 Ends

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The U.S. House of Representatives adjourned for the year on Wednesday while the Senate hustles to finish legislation on health care. As of this writing, an array of major tax issues are still to be resolved in the next several days or when Congress returns in 2010:

Health Care Reform

On November 7, the House passed its health care bill, (H.R. 3962), which includes a public option. The largest revenue-raising provision in the House health bill is a surcharge of 5.4 percent on adjusted gross incomes over $1 million (or over $500,000 for unmarried individuals).

(See CTJ's previous analysis and state-by-state estimates of the surcharge in the House health care bill.)

The Senate is still working to pass a health care bill, and some reports claim that the chamber could be working on Christmas Eve to accomplish it. While there is a clear majority of Senators willing to support a public option, the rules allowing 41 Senators to filibuster legislation have encouraged a few conservative Democrats to join Republicans in blocking a public option.

While some details remain to be worked out, a majority of Senators seems to have settled on certain revenue-raising provisions to help pay for health care reform. The largest revenue-raiser in the still-developing Senate bill is an excise tax on high-cost health insurance plans. This excise tax is controversial because many analysts conclude that these plans are not particularly generous in the benefits they provide and they are not necessarily enjoyed by high-income workers. Rather, the high costs are often the result of insurers charging more to cover a work force that is older than average or that has high health risks.

(See CTJ's previous analysis concluding that the Senate's proposed excise tax on high-cost health insurance is less progressive than the surcharge in the House health care bill.)

One revenue-raiser in the Senate proposal that is progressive is an increase in the Medicare payroll tax rate on earnings over $250,000 (or over $200,000 for an unmarried individual).

While this tax increase would only affect those who can afford to pay more, an even better proposal would reform the Medicare tax so that it no longer exempts investment income. This idea was included in an amendment that was filed by Senator Debbie Stabenow during the Finance Committee markup, but was not acted on. Such an amendment may be offered when health care reform is debated on the Senate floor.

Job Creation

On December 8, President Obama announced several proposals to create jobs. His best ideas involve direct spending by the federal government (including extending aid to unemployed and low-income people and aid to state and local governments, among other things). His worst ideas involve tax cuts (including eliminating capital gains taxes on small business investment and providing a tax credit for payroll expansion).

(See CTJ's previous discussion of President Obama's job creation proposals and ways to stimulate the economy.)

The House approved a $154 billion jobs bill, as part of a regular appropriations bill (H.R. 2847), before adjourning this week, and thankfully, it focuses on direct spending. One of the few tax cuts included is a provision to remove the earnings requirement (currently set at $3,000) for the refundable portion of the Child Tax Credit, ensuring that low-income families with children can benefit from it. The Senate is not expected to take up jobs legislation until sometime next year.

Estate Tax

The tax cut legislation enacted by President Bush and his allies in Congress in 2001 set the estate tax to gradually shrink until disappearing altogether in 2010. But, like all the Bush tax cuts, this estate tax cut expires at the end of 2010, meaning the estate tax will reappear in 2011 at the pre-Bush levels if Congress simply does nothing.

Families who have several million dollars to leave to the next generation have benefited the most from the infrastructure, educated workforce, stability and other public goods that taxes make possible. So it's entirely reasonable that these families pay a tax on the transfer of their enormous estates from one generation to the next, particularly since the majority of the value in these estates is capital gains income that has never been taxed.

One might be tempted to think that allowing the estate tax to disappear would be fine if it reappears at the pre-Bush levels in 2010. Unfortunately, the one-year repeal of the estate tax could tempt some lawmakers to make that repeal permanent, or might tempt them to allow only a very scaled back version of the estate tax to reappear in 2011.

So the House of Representatives approved a compromise that would make permanent the estate tax rules in effect in 2009. This would partially preserve the Bush cut in the estate tax, but prevent the tax from disappearing in 2010.

(See CTJ's previous analysis of the estate tax legislation, along with state-by-state figures showing how few estates are actually subject to the tax.)

Key Democratic Senators indicated that they did not want to make permanent the 2009 rules because -- incredibly -- they were interested in reducing the estate tax even more. Democratic leaders in the Senate attempted but failed to get agreement in the chamber to pass a one-year extension of the 2009 rules, which would prevent the estate tax from disappearing in 2010 and allow Congress to debate a permanent solution as part of the broader tax debate that must happen before the Bush tax cuts expire at the end of next year.

Pathetically, the Senate failed last week to prevent the one-year repeal, which they had known was coming ever since the Bush cut in the estate tax was enacted back in 2001. Democratic leaders in the Senate say they will enact the one-year extension of the 2009 estate tax rules retroactively in 2010. While retroactive tax increases may not be the ideal way to do things, this approach should not cause any problems since tax planners have known for years that Congress was likely to act to prevent this one-year disappearance of the estate tax.

Corporate Tax Breaks (aka "Tax Extenders")

On December 9, the House approved H.R. 4213, which would extend a series of tax cuts (mostly breaks for business) but would offset the costs by closing the infamous "carried interest" loophole for buyout fund managers and by cracking down on offshore tax cheats.

The bill would also require the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) to issue reports evaluating these tax cuts before the end of next year, when Congress is likely to act on them again.

CTJ joined the AFL-CIO, SEIU, AFSCME and eight national non-profits in signing a letter in support of H.R. 4213 for these reasons.

The provisions extending the tax cuts (often called the "tax extenders") are enacted by Congress every year or so. CTJ and other analysts have often criticized the tax extenders as corporate pork routed through the tax code.

But H.R. 4213 is a major step in the right direction for the reasons spelled out in the letter to Congress.

(See our previous article on H.R. 4213 explaining the points made in the letter.)

Democratic leaders in the Senate want to pass the tax extenders retroactively early in 2010. One problem is that the chairman of the Senate tax-writing committee, Max Baucus (D-MT) believes that the carried interest issue is “best dealt with in the context of an overall tax reform,” according to a spokesman. As we've explained before, this is an all-purpose excuse for legislators who want to avoid closing even the most unfair and outrageous loopholes.

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