Hillary Clinton's New Tax Proposals: Steps Toward Making the Wealthy Pay Their Fair Share

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Hillary Clinton on Tuesday released a series of new proposals that she says would help restore “basic fairness to our tax code.” The proposals, which she estimates would raise about $500 billion over the next decade, include a multi-millionaire income tax surcharge, a Buffett Rule-style tax increase and closing several prominent loopholes and reforms to the estate tax. These proposals would represent a positive step toward ensuring that the wealthy pay their fair share in taxes.

What Are Clinton’s Tax Reform Proposals?

Clinton’s plan includes what she calls a “Fair Share Surcharge,” which would impose an additional 4 percent tax on adjusted gross income (AGI) over $5 million. Because the tax applies to AGI–including both wages and capital gains–it would effectively decrease the benefit of the special preferential tax rate on investment income, which makes up the largest share of income for many multi-millionaires. This provision would raise roughly $204 billion over 10 years.

In addition to the surcharge, Clinton proposes to implement the Buffett rule, which would create a minimum tax of 30 percent on millionaires. The rule was originally inspired by billionaire Warren Buffett’s call for higher taxes on millionaires because he said he pays a lower effective tax rate than his secretary. This provision would raise about $50 billion over 10 years.

The third plank of Clinton’s tax reform plan would close down three egregious tax loopholes. Like many other candidates, including both Republicans and Democrats, Clinton proposes to end the carried interest loophole, which allows investment managers to misclassify their earnings as capital gains income to pay a lower preferential tax rate on this income. The plan also calls for eliminating the reinsurance loophole, which allows super-wealthy investors to use derivatives to avoid paying the normal (and higher) tax rate on short-term capital gains. The plan would also eliminate the so-called “Romney Loophole,” which allows some wealthy families to use retirement accounts to shelter large swathes of their income from taxation. Eliminating these three loopholes would raise about $51 billion.

While the Buffett Rule, the Fair Share Surcharge, and other loophole closers would help level the playing field between wealthy investors and average taxpayers, Clinton’s proposals avoid dealing directly with the federal tax code’s central problem: the preferential tax treatment on investment income, which is both taxed at a lower-than-normal rate and is often not taxed at all. Rather than creating two new taxes and engaging in a never-ending game of whack-a-loophole, a more straightforward solution would be to tax capital gains and dividend income the same as wage income, and to make more transfers of appreciated assets subject to tax on gains. A Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ) report has found that eliminating the preferential tax rate would raise $533 billion over a decade and would be extremely progressive.

The final plank of Clinton’s plan would lower the estate tax exemption from $5 million to $3.5 million and increase the top estate tax rate from 40 to 45 percent, which would raise about $189 billion over 10 years. According to the campaign, lowering the threshold to $3.5 million would still mean only the wealthiest 4 out of 1,000 estates would owe even a penny in estate taxes. Clinton is also proposing to curb estate tax avoidance through closing down certain estate-tax shelters, such as the infamous GRAT loophole. These proposals represent significant steps in restoring the robustness of the estate tax, which is crucial to counteract the increasing growth in wealth inequality.

Clinton’s revenue-raising proposals are in stark contrast to every single one of the Republican presidential candidates’ plans, all of which would cut taxes by trillions of dollars. The GOP plans would also make the tax system much less progressive by providing the wealthy with massive new tax cuts. CTJ analyses have shown that candidates Trump, Bush, Rubio and Carson would each give the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans tax breaks averaging more than $170,000 a year.

However, Clinton has not specified how she would propose using the revenue raised if her reforms were implemented. Given the nation’s dire need for more revenue to pay for public investments, using the revenue to finance tax cuts would be ill-advised. 

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