Hillary Clinton recently announced a $350 billion proposal to make college more affordable. It would be paid for by capping the value of itemized tax deductions for high-income households. It appears that the plan is a watered down version of President Obama’s proposal to cap the tax savings from a longer list of deductions and exclusions at 28 cents per dollar deducted or excluded.
Both Clinton and Obama’s plans would affect only taxpayers in tax brackets above 28 percent (currently the 33, 35, and 39.6 percent brackets). Thus, it would limit deductions only for single taxpayers earning more than $200,000 and married couples earning more than $250,000, and its effects would be trivial until incomes are much higher than that.
A CTJ analysis of President’s Obama’s broader proposal to limit the value of various deductions, which would have raised an estimated $529 billion over 10 years, found that only about three percent of taxpayers would see any tax increase, and that three-quarters of the tax hike would be paid by the best-off one percent.
The upside-down nature of tax deductions and exclusions means that taxpayers in higher brackets receive a greater percentage benefit than those in lower brackets. For instance, taxpayers in the top bracket can save almost 40 cents for each dollar deducted while taxpayers in the 15 percent bracket save only 15 cents on the dollar. And, of course, low- and moderate-income taxpayers are much less likely to itemize deductions because their potential deductions are generally less than the flat standard deduction.
The American public would be unlikely to endorse a direct spending program that awarded its greatest percentage of benefits to the wealthiest taxpayers. But this type of top-heavy subsidy often seems to escape scrutiny when it is provided through the tax code. Clinton’s plan to limit the value of itemized deductions to 28 percent on the dollar is a step in the right direction.