Tax simplification is usually a goal that everyone
can agree on. It makes filing taxes easier for the general public, and makes it easier for tax administrators to effectively enforce tax laws. Yet as this fall’s general election campaign gears up, it’s increasingly clear that the two major-party presidential candidates either aren’t prioritizing tax simplification (in the case of Hillary Clinton), or are only pretending to do so (Donald Trump).
When Trump introduced elements of a revised tax plan earlier this week, he led with the boast that “tax simplification will be a major feature” of his plan. But during his speech, Trump outlined a series of changes that would either leave the complexity of our tax system unchanged, or make it substantially worse. In fact, the most prominent new feature of Trump’s tax platform, a new deduction for child-care expenses, now appears to be one of the more convoluted tax cut proposals to be unveiled by any presidential candidate this year.
Trump’s idea to allow "parents to fully deduct the average cost of childcare spending from their taxes,” seems reasonable. But the tax code already allows provides a generous tax credit for certain child care expenses. Would Trump’s plan repeal the credit to prevent taxpayers from “double dipping” by claiming a tax credit for childcare spending that was exempt to begin with? Or, since Trump’s new deduction could be less generous than the existing credit, would families be allowed to choose which one works better for them? And what does “the average cost of childcare” mean anyway?
In the wake of Trump’s speech, the campaign released more details on the structure of the child care tax break, in language that appears to have been cribbed from a cocktail napkin:
The child care exclusion will be an above-the-line deduction. Capped at the amount of average care costs in state of residence for age of child. Low-income taxpayers able to take deduction against payroll tax. The plan is structured to benefit working and middle class families, and more detail will be rolled out soon after the plans [sic] other elements.
Suddenly the idea doesn’t sound so simple. In fact, the campaign’s language makes clear that to claim this tax break, any family would need to look up the average child care cost in their state for the number of children they have. And low-income families would face a new administrative challenge, adding information about their payroll taxes to their income tax forms.
In fairness, Trump appears to have something else in mind when he says he wants to achieve tax simplification. Trump’s speech mentioned that he would “reduce the current number of brackets from seven to three and dramatically streamline the process.” But this is a non-sequitur. The complexity of the tax filing experience has virtually nothing to do with the number of tax brackets. Right now, calculating your income taxes involves looking up a number in a table prepared by the IRS. That process would not change at all if there were four fewer brackets. Equating tax simplification with fewer brackets is, to put it simply, a canard.
Unlike Trump, who pays lip services to simplification but then proposes tax changes that wouldn’t achieve it, Secretary Clinton doesn’t even pretend to be interested in achieving simplification. But there’s a straightforward reason for this. Clinton’s main objectives in tax reform appear to be raising new revenues, and doing so in a way that leaves middle- and low-income families unaffected. Clinton would, in the name of fairness, enact a series of targeted tax hikes, each of which is carefully designed to only affect the best off Americans. But this second goal—holding middle-income families harmless—can only be achieved by drawing lines in the tax code between those who will pay more and those who won’t. Such lines can’t be drawn without making the tax system a little more complicated.
To be sure, for those earning less than $250,000 a year, these changes won’t have any material effect on the complexity of tax filing. But for those over this level (or, more accurately, for the tax preparers they hire), filing taxes will become more complicated. And Clinton’s choice to achieve this goal through several partially-redundant tax changes—capping the benefit of itemized deductions, creating a so-called “Buffet tax” with a 30 percent minimum tax on the wealthy, and adding a high-income surtax—would clearly achieve her progressive revenue-raising goals in a way that is unnecessarily complicated.
From this perspective, Clinton’s apparent lack of interest in tax simplification becomes at least somewhat understandable: sometimes, simplicity conflicts with other equally important tax reform priorities. In a setting of chronic budget deficits, it’s easy to see how revenue-raising can trump the objective of simplifying the tax system. But through this same lens, Trump’s plan seems even more incomprehensible. Trump’s plan would likely add as much complication to the code as any of Clinton’s plan—and, unlike Clinton, would do see in a way that middle- and low-income families would experience directly. Neither candidate’s tax plan, in the end, is at all friendly to the goal of tax simplification. But the Trump plan would make the process even more complicated for the very low-income families he professes to want to help.