Capital Gains & Dividends Taxes News

SEC Allows Big Banks to Fudge the Numbers, Underreport Tax Haven Subsidiaries

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A new review of 27 major American financial firms’ corporate filings finds that some of the nation’s big banks fail to report the vast majority of their tax haven subsidiaries in their annual Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) corporate filings. This brazen omission gives even more credence to previous studies about how Fortune 500 companies, banks included, are using tax haven subsidiaries to avoid U.S. taxes on a grand scale.

The companies analyzed include banking and financial services giants such as J.P. Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley. All told, the 27 firms collectively reported 401 tax haven subsidiaries to their shareholders and the SEC in 2015. However, when these same companies reported more complete information to the Federal Reserve, they revealed they own more than 2,800 corporate subsidiaries in notorious tax haven countries such as the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. In other words, these major corporations are reporting to the SEC, their shareholders and financial analysts at least 85 percent fewer subsidiaries companies than what’s on their actual books. It’s hard to believe such an omission on this vast scale is accidental. The more likely answer is that these tax haven subsidiaries are shell corporations that are part of a broader strategy to stash earnings abroad to avoid paying U.S. corporate income taxes.

How Do They Get Away With This?

Corporations can avoid disclosing subsidiaries to shareholders due to the SEC’s requirement that companies only have to disclose their “significant” subsidiaries. Even the Federal Reserve doesn’t require all subsidiaries to be reported, but does apply a stricter set of criteria for disclosure. CTJ analysts discovered the gross discrepancy between what these financial firms report to the SEC and what they report to the Federal Reserve by reviewing disclosures released to both entities.

Consumers should be concerned about this partial reporting for a few reasons. First, the SEC-mandated annual financial reports are the main source of information readily available to American shareholders who want to understand the financial health—to say nothing of the ethical standards—of the companies in which they invest. Incomplete disclosure means shareholders are routinely receiving a very incomplete view of the structure of the firms they’ve chosen to invest in. Second, if corporations are using shell companies on a mass scale to avoid paying taxes, it ultimately means ordinary working people are going to have to contribute more or the nation will not have enough resources to fund priorities as varies as education, health and transportation.

This finding is doubly troubling because the financial sector is likely not alone in failing to reveal tax haven subsidiary companies. We were only able to discern this information about the financial sector because such companies have both SEC and Federal Reserve reporting requirements. But most U.S. corporations outside the financial sector aren’t regulated by the Federal Reserve, so it is impossible to know the extent to which corporations in other sectors are concealing their tax haven subsidiaries.

Across the Fortune 500, the scope of this non-disclosure is potentially staggering. CTJ’s 2015 “Offshore Shell Games” report found that Fortune 500 companies disclosed over 7,600 tax haven subsidiaries to the SEC in 2014. If the underreporting seen in the financial sector is representative of what is happening with Fortune 500 companies in general, the actual number of tax haven subsidiaries held by this larger group could be closer to 50,000! However, the only way we will be able to discover whether this is the case is if the SEC broadens its requirements so that companies have to report all their subsidiaries and not just the “significant” ones.

Read the Full Report.

Late last year, the New York Times published an article revealing the disturbing but not surprising news that the nation has separate and unequal tax systems: one for the rich and powerful who have created a cottage “income defense industry” and another one for we regular Joes and JoAnnes.

The same day, the IRS released data showing that the average effective tax rate for the richest 400 Americans rose to 22.9 percent in 2013 (the latest year for which data are available), a substantial increase over the historically low effective rate of 16.7 percent that the group collectively paid the previous year.  How this happened is no mystery. Tax changes enacted at the end of 2012 as part of the “fiscal cliff” deal as well as Affordable Care Act tax provisions that took effect in 2013 increased top income tax rates on both wages and capital gains.

Members of the exclusive, richest 400 club on average derive 70 percent or more of their income from capital gains. They also each enjoyed $100 million or more in income in 2013. The increase in their tax rate in 2013 is notable for several reasons. One, it is 6 percent more than the average from the previous year. Two, the rate, nonetheless, remains far below the nearly 30 percent average rate the group paid in the 1990s when the IRS first began publishing these data.

Average tax rates for the richest remain well below 1990s-era levels because even after the fiscal cliff deal, the top tax rate on capital gains is still only 23.8 percent, compared to the 28/29 percent capital gains tax rate in the early 1990s and the 39.6 percent top tax rate now applicable to wages. The way the IRS taxes income from wages versus income from wealth creates a disparity in the tax system that favors the wealthiest Americans and allows them to reduce their effective tax rates to well below the rates paid by less affluent Americans.

This is important information in the context of a presidential election in which all of the major Republican presidential contenders have proposed top-heavy tax cut proposals that would mostly benefit the wealthiest Americans while adding trillions of dollars to the national debt. On the Democratic side, none of the candidates have yet released comprehensive tax proposals. However, Hillary Clinton this week released a plan that, among other things, would close “certain” tax loopholes, impose a 4 percent surtax on households with income over $5 million, restore the estate tax to 2009 levels and increase the tax rate, a move the campaign says would raise $400 billion to $500 billion over a decade.

The next president’s policy on taxes will determine whether an elite sliver of the nation’s population will see their effective tax rates go back down to historically low levels or inch up and move the nation toward a more progressive federal tax system.

The sheer amount of wealth held by the top 400 means that tax increases on this group would have a measurable effect on the nation’s revenues and its ability to fund roads, bridges, education, public safety, public health, nutrition and other vital programs and services. Ending special tax breaks for capital gains would have an even better effect on tax fairness and our budget deficit.

And because the nation’s income continues to concentrate at the top—the richest 400 Americans, a tiny group, enjoyed 1.17 percent of nationwide AGI in 2013, more than twice as big as their 1992 share of nationwide income—failing to end tax breaks for these best-off Americans hurts public investments more and more each year. Obviously, the answer to the nation’s need to raise more revenue cannot solely be to tax this exclusive group more. Lawmakers and candidates, though, must stop peddling massive tax cuts--especially for the rich--as a policy panacea at a time when the nation isn't raising enough revenue to meet its priorities.

It’s welcome news that tax rates on the top 400 Americans have rebounded from their recent historic lows. But the recent reversal of the downward trend in tax rates for the richest Americans is only a first step toward undoing the regressive, top-heavy tax cuts of the past 20 years rather than a sea-level change in tax fairness. 

Ted Cruz's Tax Plan Would Cost $16.2 Trillion over 10 Years--Or Maybe Altogether Eliminate Tax Collection

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Update March 9th, 2016: We have since revised downward our analysis from $16.2 trillion to $13.9 trillion, to reflect that Ted Cruz's staff has informed the media that the actual VAT rate will be 18.56 percent, rather than the 16 percent that he had been advertising. 

During Tuesday’s Republican presidential candidates’ debate, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) made a claim that, in theory, shouldn’t be too hard to live up to. He said his tax plan is less irresponsible than plans put forth by his competitors, and he claimed the ten-year cost of his plan is less than a trillion. “It costs less than virtually every other plan people have put up here,” Cruz said.

Being less irresponsible than Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Donald Trump—each of whom have proposed tax plans that would cost $7 trillion or more over the next decade—is a low bar to hurdle. Yet contrary to his assertions, Cruz’s plan would be more costly than any of the other plans put forth by his competitors. A Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ) analysis of the Cruz tax plan finds that it would cost $1.3 trillion in its first year alone and a staggering $16.2 trillion over ten years.

Cruz’s plan would eliminate the corporate income tax, the estate tax, and the payroll tax, digging an $18 trillion hole in federal revenues over a decade. He also proposes to sharply reduce the personal income tax, replacing the current graduated rate system with a flat-rate 10 percent.  Cruz’s plan would repeal most itemized deductions and tax credits, but it would leave the mortgage interest and charitable deductions largely intact, along with the Child Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit. On balance, these personal income tax changes would lower income tax revenues by 60 percent and add another $12.8 trillion to the plan’s 10-year cost.

Cruz proposes making up for the $31 trillion in lost revenue by introducing a regressive value-added tax (VAT), and, it seems, a healthy dose of magic pixie dust.

Cruz’s claim that his plan would cost “less than a trillion” depends critically on raising an enormous amount from his 16 percent VAT, which would apply to almost everything American consumers purchase. The remaining revenue shortfall would, in Cruz’s estimate, be offset by a supposed economic boom based on the discredited supply-side magic that has been part of the far right’s economic fantasies for decades.   

But Cruz’s math has a gigantic hole in it. He wouldn’t just make consumers pay his VAT, he would also make the government pay the tax (to itself) on all of its purchases, from warplanes to paper clips and the wages it pays to its employees. Cruz’s claim that the government can raise money by taxing itself accounts for a third of the alleged yield from his VAT.

Without this sleight of hand, Cruz’s overall plan would cost more than $16 trillion over a decade and reduce total federal revenues by well over a third.

Even this enormous amount may be a low-ball estimate since Cruz insists that he would “eliminate the IRS.” If he really means that, then he would apparently reduce total federal revenues by closer to 100 percent. After all, without a tax collection agency, why would anyone pay taxes?

Candidates' Tax Cuts Unequivocally Skew Toward the Wealthy

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As Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ) outlined in a post last week, most major Republican presidential candidates have released tax proposals that would overwhelmingly benefit the wealthy and balloon the national debt. No one can refute this, but candidates and anti-tax, trickle-down economics supporters are trying to obscure the facts.

Last week, the business-backed Tax Foundation released a blog that chides reporters for using dollar amounts instead of percentages to inform the public about how generous candidates’ tax cuts would be for the top 1 percent.  They may as well dangle a shiny object. Shifting the debate toward an analytic discussion of percentages versus average dollars is a distraction. The real issue is why are candidates and their allies trying to convince the public that corporations and the wealthy need more budget-busting tax breaks in the first place?

Federal lawmakers are struggling to find ways to fund the Highway Transportation Fund, pay for debts that have been built up over the past four decades and maintain essential public services. How enormous tax cuts fit into this equation is a far better issue to debate than average dollars versus percentages or shares. Better still, why not call candidates on the carpet and ask them to explain why the nation needs massive tax cuts and what programs they would cut as a result of the lost revenue?

The tax cuts for “jobs creators,” and trickle-down, stimulate-the-economy argument is tired, shopworn and unproven. The public has previously been sold the vision of a future in which everybody—but mostly and especially the rich—gets a tax cut and the nation’s economy grows by leaps and bounds. It didn’t happen in the past, and no serious person thinks it will happen in the future.

When CTJ analyzes tax proposals, its tables show average tax changes in dollars by income group, tax changes as a share of income and the overall share of the tax cut that each income group would receive. Including all three columns of data reveals a complete picture of the distributional effects, as opposed to just the change in after tax income which, in isolation, can obscure the impact.

The most important figures regarding the GOP candidates' tax plans are the enormous revenue losses that each would incur. In the case of Sen. Marco Rubio, CTJ estimates it would lose $11.8 trillion over a decade. Jeb Bush’s plan would add $7.1 trillion to the national debt over 10 years. Donald Trump’s plan would blow a $12 trillion hole in the federal budget over a decade. An analysis of Rand Paul’s flat tax plan found it would starve the federal government of $15 trillion over a decade, and a forthcoming CTJ analysis of Ted Cruz’s plan likely will find it would be equally as devastating to the federal budget.

It is fair game to evaluate whether the nation can afford a tax proposal in which the biggest share and dollar amount flow to the wealthy.

CTJ director Bob McIntyre says criticisms of using dollars to evaluate candidates’ tax plan are a ruse.

“Why is anyone even talking about tax cuts?” McIntyre said. “We already don’t raise enough revenue to pay for existing programs, and as more and more Baby Boomers continue to retire, we’ll need a lot more revenue to pay back IOUs to Social Security, while maintaining other essential programs.”

By trumpeting tax cuts without talking about the consequence and then attempting to shift the public debate toward theoretical discussions about percentages versus whole numbers, candidates and anti-tax advocates are trying to obfuscate the real issue, McIntyre said.

Given the reality of our nation’s fiscal situation, neither dollars nor percentages can justify more huge tax cuts for the wealthy. That’s the substantive discussion we should be having.

Tax Cut Crazy Talk

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Sometimes when presented with fantastical information, the only appropriate response is a heavy sigh and a plea to stop. Please. Just. Stop. 

Such has been the case time after time this year as presidential candidates have released tax reform proposals that promise to drastically slash taxes across the board and also generate strong, economic growth. Please. Just. Stop.

Earlier this week, Citizens for Tax Justice released an analysis of Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio’s tax proposal, and the results are exasperating but not surprising. The senator’s plan reserves the greatest share (34 percent) of its tax cuts for the top 1 percent (average annual cut of $223,783), and it would balloon the national debt by $11.8 trillion over a decade.

If this story sounds familiar, well, it is.  

CTJ has analyzed other candidates’ tax plans, too. It found that Jeb Bush would give nearly half of his tax cuts to the top 1 percent and add $7.1 trillion to the national debt over 10 years. Donald Trump’s plan would target more than a third of his tax cuts to the top 1 percent, and, like Rubio, would blow a $12 trillion hole in the federal budget over a decade.

Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul are offering flat tax proposals that would lower taxes for the rich, increase taxes on low-income people and cost even more than Trump or Rubio's plans. And Ben Carson has proposed a loosey-goosey “tithing” plan (at a rate of 10 percent or 15 percent, depending on when you ask him) with few details, but apparently with the highest revenue loss of all.

All of these candidates are telling the American public that they have the best interest of the middle class at heart. But a bit of simple math quickly refutes that falsehood.

Yes, most of the candidates claim they would cut taxes for all income groups (with the exception of Bobby Jindal, who fervently and explicitly calls for much higher taxes on the poor). But the superrich would be the greatest beneficiaries by far. And once enormous cuts in public services that these plans would require are taken into account, only the very rich would come out ahead.

To be sure, all of the candidates claim that their plans would produce an enormous increase in economic growth. For example, Bush, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled, “My Tax Overhaul to Unleash 4% Economic Growth,” stated, “By focusing on tax reform like I did in Florida, America can grow faster, too.” Likewise, Trump said his plan, "will create jobs and incentives of all kinds while simultaneously growing the economy.”

But these are just assertions with no backing. The candidates seem to have forgotten that the nation has tried trickle-down economic policies before without success.

When pressed about his deficit-busting plan on CBS’s Face the Nation, Rubio said, “It has to be a combination of things. You have to have the spending discipline on the mandatory spending programs and you need to sustain significant economic growth.”

Well, at least one candidate admits that we can’t have vast tax cuts and adequately fund the nation’s programs and services too.

Josh Barro at the New York Times compared the candidates’ plans to “puppies and rainbows.” Many others also have roundly criticized Republican promises of tax cuts without revenue consequence. You can read some of them here, here, here, here , here, and here.

Recall that George W. Bush promised the nation could cut taxes across the board — but especially for the rich — without budgetary fall out. Instead, Bush’s tax cuts turned surpluses into deficits, even with budget cuts. And as for boosting the economy, economic growth was poor throughout Bush’s presidency and toward the end saw the start of the worst economic recession since the 1930s. Even still, Republican candidates are proposing to double- and triple-down on Bush-era tax policies.

Please. Stop.

“These candidates don’t want to tell the American public the truth,” said Bob McIntyre, director of CTJ. “Taxes are already at historically low rates, and our nation cannot have more massive tax cuts and also meet our priorities. In fact, we need considerably higher taxes, especially on tax-avoiding corporations and wealthy investors.  Polls show that a large majority of Americans agree, which makes one wonder why the GOP candidates are calling for just the opposite.”

Today, federal lawmakers are struggling to find ways to fund the Highway Transportation Fund, pay for debts that have been built up over the past four decades and maintain essential public services. And this is with current tax rates. The answer to these very real complex national issues is certainly not crazy, fantastical tax-cut proposals that overwhelmingly benefit the wealthy.

Bush and Trump's "Populist" Tax Rhetoric Is All Talk

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Presidential candidate Donald Trump made headlines last week for saying that hedge fund managers are “getting away with murder” in their tax-avoidance behavior. He said he would put a stop to this by closing the infamous carried interest tax loophole, leading to a rush of articles declaring that Trump is threatening to “blow up” the Republican Party’s orthodox support of tax cuts for the rich. This week, former Florida governor Jeb Bush followed suit in calling for the closure of the loophole and received similar accolades for challenging the “long-held tenets of conservative tax policy.”

But the populist rhetoric of both Trump and Bush around carried interest should not distract from their broader plans to dramatically cut taxes for wealthy investors in other ways. Their campaign rhetoric does not deserve accolades; it requires greater scrutiny.

Hedge fund and private equity managers usually structure investment deals in such a way that they receive a percent of an investment’s profits as compensation–carried interest–even if they do not invest their own capital. A loophole in our tax laws allows investment managers to claim this income as capital gains rather than normal income, allowing money managers to pay the special lower tax rate for investment income.

For the last decade, Democrats have called for Congress to close this loophole. Populist Sen. Elizabeth Warren has often railed against it. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders recently said the Treasury Department has the authority to close this loophole. And President Barack Obama, along with current presidential contenders Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, all have proposed closing the carried interest loophole.

Mostly, calling for closing the egregious carried interest loophole has been the purview of Democrats, although former Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp proposed closing the loophole as part of his broad tax reform plan last year. So, it is to be expected that some would call Trump and Bush’s plans to close the loophole a “populist” policy position. But they also both propose to pile tax cuts on the rich many times larger than the roughly $2 billion a year that could be raised by taxing carried interest at the same rate as normal compensation.

Bush’s plan includes several substantial tax cuts that would directly benefit wealthy investors. To start, it would cut the already low preferential tax rate on capital gains from 23.8 percent to 20 percent, giving wealthy investors an annual tax cut of $30 billion (a break 15 times the size of the carried interest loophole). In addition, Bush is proposing to give corporations hundreds of billions of dollars in new tax breaks over the next decade.

As for Trump, if his soon-to-be-released tax plan resembles his most recent tax reform proposal, anti-tax conservatives and wealthy investors won’t have anything to fear after all. In his 2011 tax reform proposal, Trump proposed to eliminate the corporate income tax and the estate tax, drop the tax rate on capital gains income and cut marginal income tax rates. This  would result in huge tax cuts for the wealthy. The roughly $500 billion annual cost of eliminating the corporate income tax would pay back wealthy investors 250 times over for the tax hike they’d see from closing the carried interest loophole.

Residual public disdain for Wall Street due to the financial crisis makes it politically expedient to bash wealthy money managers. But the tax agendas outlined by Trump and Bush would lavish huge tax breaks on the very same wealthy investors they claim to be taking on.

Deus Ex Machina: IRS Has an Epiphany, Realizes It Has the Power to Close a Tax Loophole

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In film, it’s called “deus ex machina” or god from the machine. When heroes find themselves painted into a hopeless corner from which seemingly nothing can save them, an implausible plot twist saves the day. In the original Superman movie, for example, Christopher Reeve’s Man of Steel sees Lois Lane killed by a devastating West Coast earthquake and suddenly remembers that he has the capacity to turn back time by flying around the earth so fast that it temporarily starts spinning backward.

Equally unexpected, and substantially less lame, is the latest development in the endless saga of tax avoidance by hedge fund and private equity managers. The Internal Revenue Service proposed new rules last Wednesday that will make it harder for money managers to disguise their ordinary income as capital gains. That’s right. After years of congressional inaction on hedge fund tax avoidance, the IRS, like Superman, has suddenly remembered that it has had the power to solve this problem all along.

To be clear, the new IRS rules can only solve a small part of the problem. Hedge fund and other investment partnership managers are often paid under an arrangement known as “two and twenty". Managers receive a 2 percent fee for assets under their management, and later get 20 percent of any profits.

The managers of these partnerships have come up with strategies for avoiding taxes on both the 2 and the 20. On the 20 they get the tax break we know as “carried interest,” through which hedge fund managers brazenly classify their share of the partnership’s profits as capital gains income, despite the fact that the money they’re investing doesn’t even belong to them. The top tax rate on capital gains is lower than the top tax rate on ordinary income, which is why these wealthy fund managers seek to classify as much of their income as possible as capital gains.

What the IRS dealt with last week is the 2, the management fees, which private equity firms have also found a way to convert into capital gains. The scheme here is certainly less gripping than Lex Luthor attempting to destroy California, but it is just as obviously wrong that private equity managers take their management fees, clearly a payment for service that should be taxed as regular income, and pool them into a fund that generates income they can describe as capital gains. This results in huge tax savings. This crafty accounting has fooled no one, and—finally–the IRS is calling these alleged capital gains what they are: “disguised payment for services.”

This isn’t the end of the story, however. Affected parties can submit comments to the IRS during the next several months on suggested modifications to the new IRS rules. Expect those who benefit from these tax loopholes to submit comments arguing why the IRS shouldn’t tighten its rules. Yet it seems highly unlikely that hedge funds and private equity firms will be able to use this tax dodge with impunity going forward.

This leaves the interesting question of whether the IRS can also deal with the much larger problem of carried interest, or the 20 percent of profits that money managers earn if and when an investment becomes profitable. While the profits are indeed capital gains for the actual investors, the money managers (who don’t have to invest a single cent of their own money in the venture) get a share of the profits because of how the deal is structured, thus their share of profits is income in the same way that the money that individuals pay to financial advisors is income.

President Obama, CTJ and other groups have called for legislation to close this loophole, but Congress has repeatedly failed to act. Last year, however, the respected tax professor Vic Fleischer argued in the New York Times that the Obama Administration could close the door on the carried interest loophole through administrative action, just as the IRS has proposed to do with the 2 percent management fees.

It would be more pleasing if Superman could save the world in a plausible way, just as it might be better to see the carried interest loophole closed through legislation. But the current ruling party in Congress is utterly uninterested in doing so. So it would be more expeditious if the IRS has another epiphany and recognizes that it has the power to solve the entire problem on its own. 

Tax Rate for Richest 400 People at Its Second Lowest Level Since 1992

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New IRS data released this month reveal that the nation’s 400 richest people paid their second-lowest average tax rate in the past quarter century.

These tax filers paid just 16.7 percent of their adjusted gross income (AGI) in federal income taxes in 2012, the latest year data are available. This means the nation’s wealthiest paid, on average, less than half the top statutory federal income tax rate of 35 percent that was in effect in that year. Since the IRS began tabulating these data in 1992, the only other year the wealthiest paid a lower tax rate was in 2007.

How the very richest paid such a low rate is no mystery. These individuals derived about 70 percent of their income from capital gains and dividends, which in 2012 were taxed at just 15 percent, a fraction of the top statutory rate to which those who get their income from working a 9 to 5 are subject.

Fortunately, tax changes enacted at the end of 2012 as part of the “fiscal cliff” deal, and as part of the legislation enabling the Affordable Care Act, increased top income tax rates on both wages and capital gains starting in 2013, so it’s likely that effective tax rates on the top 400 taxpayers will increase in 2013 to reflect this.

But federal income tax rules still allow a gigantic tax preference for capital gains relative to salaries and wages. The top tax rate on capital gains is now 23.8 percent, well below the 39.6 percent top tax rate now applicable to wages. This means that the best-off Americans still can reduce their effective tax rates well below those facing many middle-income Americans going forward.

For this reason, it makes perfect sense that President Obama’s new budget proposal would scale back tax breaks for capital gains. During his State of the Union address, the president proposed increasing the top capital gains rate to 28 percent for wealthy investors, restoring the rate to where it was through the Bush I Administration and until 1997. But even if Obama’s proposal is enacted, the best-off Americans would still enjoy a double-digit tax break on their capital gains.

Of course hackneyed talking points prevailed among anti-tax proponents after the president announced his proposal: Stifling investment, slowing economic growth, etcetera, etcetera. The fact is these doomsday scenarios have not proven to be true in the wake of previous tax increases, and we should be debating tax policy within the broader context of how to raise enough revenue to fund the nation’s priorities.

As much as some would like to delink tax policy from, say, the condition of roads and bridges or the quality of our public health system, schools, and the quality of public safety services, it’s all intertwined.  And make no mistake, the tax breaks available to just 400 of the best-off Americans absolutely make a difference in our ability to provide these important services. Astonishingly, these 400 individuals enjoyed almost 12 percent of all capital gains income nationwide in 2012—meaning that roughly one in every nine dollars of capital gains tax breaks went to these 400 individuals in that year.

Most Americans no longer need to be reminded that wealth has been concentrating more and more at the top, or that ordinary working people have been economically standing still. But the IRS’s data on the top 400 taxpayers has not lost its capacity to shock, and remains an important reminder that our political institutions, and especially our tax laws, often act to make inequality worse, not better.

Hedge Fund Managers in the Hot Seat

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What the heck is a derivative and why do we care?

A derivative is a financial instrument whose value and performance depends on another asset. For example, let’s say a lender owns mortgages worth $100 million. The lender can bundle those together and sell interests in the mortgage pool until all $100 million worth is sold. But if, instead, he sells derivatives contracts whose performance is tied to the performance of the mortgage pool, the lender can sell many times the original face value of the mortgages. As a result, he magnifies the return and also the risk of the pool of mortgages. Anyone remember AIG and the 2008 financial crisis?

The advantages and disadvantages of derivatives are many, but I’d like to focus on just two:

1)      the use of derivatives to game the tax system, and

2)      how derivatives contribute to the financialization of our economy.

On Tuesday the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations questioned hedge fund managers about their use of a complicated financial derivative known as “basket options” to avoid both taxes and regulatory limits on excessive borrowing. Representatives from Barclays and Deutsche Bank, which developed the strategy that they sold to hedge funds, also testified.

It’s just the latest in a series of investigations about the misuse of derivatives for tax purposes. See, for example, earlier reports about the J.P. Morgan Whale Trades and how offshore entities use derivatives to dodge taxes on U.S. dividends. While there are plenty of reasons why financial managers use derivatives, chief among them is avoiding taxes.

Tax-avoidance derivatives are created to take advantage of loopholes that give some special treatment to particular taxpayers, industries, or types of income. For example, if I own a partnership interest, part of the income I receive may be ordinary income subject to my highest marginal tax rate and some of it may be long-term capital gains that are taxed at a maximum income tax rate of 20 percent. On the other hand, if I own a derivative tied to the performance of a particular partnership and I keep the derivative for at least a year, all of my income may be treated as long-term capital gains. When Congress got wind of this game, they shut it down some years ago.

Unfortunately, Congress just can’t keep up with all of the derivatives that the financial industry invents to game the tax system. That’s the main reason why we need a tax system that taxes all kinds of income at the same rates. Whenever Congress passes a special rule that benefits a certain type of transaction or taxpayer, tax attorneys and accountants quickly come up with ways for their wealthy clients to qualify for the tax break in ways that Congress never intended.

Derivatives also contribute to the financialization of the economy—an increase in the size and importance of the financial sector relative to the overall economy. In 1950, financial services accounted for 2.8 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product. By 1980, that number was up to 4.9 percent and in 2008 in was 8.3 percent.

At some point—and many believe we are there or way past there—continued financialization of the economy has major negative consequences: rising inequality, reduced investment by other sectors, and risk magnification, just to name a few. Derivatives not only add to but compound these negative consequences because there is no limit to the amount of derivatives that can be issued.

Derivatives have another ugly side: many are created in offshore tax haven jurisdictions because they cannot be legally used in the U.S. (or other real countries). The derivatives that contributed to the collapse of Enron at the turn of the millennium and the staggering losses of AIG and other financial institutions in the 2008 financial meltdown were mostly related to transactions in offshore jurisdictions.

Kudos to Sen. Levin and the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations for putting the spotlight on this important issue. A functioning Congress would take quick action to fix the problem. Sadly, however, too many of our legislators are fervent supporters of evil behavior when it comes to taxes.

New Report: Addressing the Need for More Federal Revenue

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A new report from Citizens for Tax Justice explains why Congress should raise revenue and describes several options to do so.

Read the report.

Part I of the report explains why Congress needs to raise the overall amount of federal revenue collected. Contrary to many politicians’ claims, the United States is much less taxed than other countries, and wealthy individuals and corporations are particularly undertaxed. This means that lawmakers should eschew enacting laws that reduce revenue (including the temporary tax breaks that Congress extends every couple of years), and they should proactively enact new legislation that increases revenue available for public investments.

Parts II, III, and IV of this report describe several policy options that would accomplish this. This information is summarized in the table to the right.

Even when lawmakers agree that the tax code should be changed, they often disagree about how much change is necessary. Some lawmakers oppose altering one or two provisions in the tax code, advocating instead for Congress to enact such changes as part of a sweeping reform that overhauls the entire tax system. Others regard sweeping reform as too politically difficult and want Congress to instead look for small reforms that raise whatever revenue is necessary to fund given initiatives.

The table to the right illustrates options that are compatible with both approaches. Under each of the three categories of reforms, some provisions are significant, meaning they are likely to happen only as part of a comprehensive tax reform or another major piece of legislation. Others are less significant, would raise a relatively small amount of revenue, and could be enacted in isolation to offset the costs of increased investment in (for example) infrastructure, nutrition, health or education.

For example, in the category of reforms affecting high-income individuals, Congress could raise $613 billion over 10 years by eliminating an enormous break in the personal income tax for capital gains income. This tax break allows wealthy investors like Warren Buffett to pay taxes at lower effective rates than many middle-class people. Or Congress could raise just $17 billion by addressing a loophole that allows wealthy fund managers like Mitt Romney to characterize the “carried interest” they earn as “capital gains.” Or Congress could raise $25 billion over ten years by closing a loophole used by Newt Gingrich and John Edwards to characterize some of their earned income as unearned income to avoid payroll taxes.

Read the report. 

Clinton Family Finances Highlight Issues with Taxation of the Wealthy

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With the release of her new book and the 2016 election just around the corner, Hillary Clinton's wealth and tax rate have been fodder for talking heads the past couple weeks. Both the report on the Clintons estate tax planning and Ms. Clinton's comments that she pays "ordinary income tax" provide useful lessons on the problems with the way the United States taxes wealthy individuals.

When Avoiding the Estate Tax Becomes the "Standard"

According to an in-depth report in Bloomberg, Bill and Hillary Clinton transferred the ownership of their New York residence into a pair of Qualified Personal Residence Trusts (QPRT), which tax experts believe could allow them to avoid hundreds of thousands of dollars in estate taxes.

The substantial tax benefit that the Clintons generated is driven by two key aspects of the QPRT. Most importantly, placing the residence into the QPRT locks in its current value as part of the estate, so all the future growth in the house's value will not be taxable as part of the estate. In addition, because the residence ownership is split in half between two QPRTs, the total valuation of both trusts is discounted because partial ownership stakes are considered by the IRS to have a lower value.

In other words, the Clintons are indeed using a tax dodge. They are using a method that, unfortunately, has become "pretty standard" for wealthy individuals and, also unfortunately, is entirely legal under our broken estate tax system.

Unlike wealthy individuals such as Sheldon Adelson, the Clintons have historically supported strengthening the estate tax rather than dismantling it further. During the 2008 campaign for example, Ms. Clinton supported capping the per-person exemption at $3.5 million, which mirrors President Obama's current proposal to strengthen the estate tax in his most recent budget (PDF).

Noting the Difference between the Tax Treatment Investment and Wage Income

In a much publicized interview with The Guardian, Ms. Clinton noted that she pays "ordinary income tax, unlike a lot of people who are truly well off." While she certainly opened her mouth and inserted her foot, her adversaries attacks on her poor phrasing misses the point.  A big part of the problem with our tax code is the preferential treatment it gives to income derived from wealth (e.g. capital gains, stock dividends) versus income derived from work. So, indeed, the Clintons are wealthy by any standards. Between 2000 and 2007 had $109 million in adjusted gross income, and they paid a 31 percent tax rate. Their tax rate is more akin to the rate paid by working people because they derive a significant portion of their high annual income from speaking fees, book royalties and other activities that are classified as work.

A wealthy investor, like Mitt Romney and Warren Buffet, with the same income but all of it derived from capital gains and stock dividends would have paid about half the rate the Clintons paid. This preferential treatment helps to perpetuate income inequality.

Hopefully, Mrs. Clinton's criticism of these low rates is an indication that she favors substantially curtailing or even ending the preferential rate on capital gains. If so, it would mark a positive shift from her position during the 2008 campaign, when she stated that she would not try to raise the top capital gains tax rate above 20 percent (the level it is today). 

How Obama Could End the Romney Loophole Right Now

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For the last two decades, a regrettable IRS ruling called the “carried interest loophole” has allowed wealthy private equity and venture capital managers to pay a lower tax rate on their income than the rest of us. Fair tax advocates have long called on Congress to close this loophole as a step toward tax fairness. While the prospects for legislation improving tax fairness in Congress have languished this year, the Obama Administration could bypass Congress and take immediate action to close the loophole.

The carried interest loophole has gained even more notoriety in recent years because former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney during his time at Bain Capital, resulting in the loophole being nicknamed the "Romney loophole."

The way the carried interest loophole (PDF) works is that managers of investment partnerships such as private equity and venture capital funds are often compensated with a percentage of the profits earned by assets under their management. Because of an unfortunate 1993 IRS ruling, this income is incorrectly treated as capital gains, which means the managers of these partnerships receive the special preferential rate of 20 percent rather than paying the 39.6 percent rate applied to ordinary income. Given the extraordinarily high compensation that many of these fund managers earn, its unconscionable that the tax system allows them to pay a lower tax rate on their income than their receptionists pay.

As tax professor Victor Fleischer noted in the New York Times, to end this preferential treatment of fund managers, all the administration has to do is direct the IRS to reclassify them as service providers, which would require that their income be taxed as ordinary income. Ironically, even some private fund managers have admitted (PDF) in the past that they the work they do should be characterized as "income earned in exchange for the provision of services," rather than as a capital gain.

While there is not an official estimate on the revenue impact that such an executive action would have, the Obama administration's most recent budget proposals include a provision substantially restricting the carried interest loophole and projected to raise almost $14 billion over 10 years.

Over the long term, it would be preferable to end preferential treatment of capital gains, but closing the carried interest loophole would represent a significant step the Obama administration could take now, without congressional approval, to improve fairness in the tax code. 

States' Failed Tax Policies Have Some Governors Throwing Red Herrings

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Two years ago as part of the fiscal cliff deal, members of Congress sensibly allowed a subset of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy to expire, including an increase in taxes on capital gains. Many wealthy investors, who have the benefit of tax advisors, chose to sell stocks in 2012 rather than wait for potentially higher federal income tax rates in 2013. The result was a boost in federal and state income tax collections in fiscal year 2013.

To be clear, the fiscal cliff deal’s anticipated tax hikes on the investor class didn’t increase the amount of revenue from capital gains income—it just shifted that income from fiscal year 2014 to fiscal year 2013. This meant that state lawmakers needed to plan for an extra shot of revenue in 2013, and an equivalent amount of missing revenue in 2014.

Most states planned accordingly. In states such as California, this basic budgeting matter hardly caused a ripple: the Golden State experienced a surge in personal income tax revenues in April 2013 and a large decline this year.  But, they saw the decline coming and when the dust cleared, the state actually brought in more money from personal income taxes than expected in April.

A handful of other states, however, didn’t plan as well and are attempting to blame their failed tax policies on the fiscal cliff deal. Kansas is a prime example.

Two years ago, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback declared that his plan to repeal the state’s income tax would be “a real live experiment” in supply-side economics. He pushed through two successive tax cuts that disproportionately benefited the richest Kansans, assuring the public these cuts would pay for themselves. Now he is facing a barrage of criticism over growing evidence that state tax revenues are declining in the wake of these cuts.

The pressure seems to be getting to the Brownback administration: earlier this month, Brownback’s revenue secretary, faced with a 45 percent decline in April tax revenues relative to the same month in 2013, called the month’s revenue slide “an undeniable result of President Obama’s failed economic policies.”

Kansas experienced the same revenue bubble in 2013, and the same trough in 2014, as did California and many other states. The state Department of Revenue’s April 2014 tax report notes that April 2013 revenues “increased dramatically from the previous year, about 53 percent,” due to accelerated capital gains encouraged by the fiscal cliff deal. In that context, the reported 45 percent decline in April 2014 is not only predictable, it sounds like a pretty good deal.

So why is Gov. Brownback’s administration citing this income-tax timing shift as evidence that President Obama’s policies have caused “lower income tax collections and a depressed business environment?” And why are governors in New Jersey and North Carolina making similar claims? In both Kansas and the Tarheel State, the governor is under pressure to defend the affordability of recently enacted income tax cuts.

Pinning the blame for revenue shortfalls on the fiscal cliff deal deflects scrutiny from state tax cuts costing more than advertised. In New Jersey, as the Tax Foundation has noted, Gov. Christie has been accused of using wildly optimistic revenue forecasts as part of his 2013 reelection campaign, and now he has some explaining to do about why his projections were so wrong. Once again, the Obama Administration serves as a convenient scapegoat for poor fiscal management decisions by state leaders.

But the news is not all bad out of Kansas: in a rhetorical flourish that would make North Korea envious, just one month before the Kansas Department of Revenue blamed President Obama for April’s decline in tax revenues, they explained a March increase in tax revenues as evidence that “ [w]e’re seeing the Kansas economic engine running.”

Kansas is, by all accounts, in a real fiscal jam. The ballooning cost of Brownback’s tax cuts and a recent state Supreme Court mandate that Kansas spend additional money on schools has made the task of a balanced budget very difficult for state lawmakers. But if Kansas lawmakers are in a fiscal hole, they need look no further than the state capitol to determine who is wielding a shovel.

Last week, the Congressional Progressive Caucus released its budget proposal, the Better Off Budget, which eliminates the automatic spending cuts (the “sequestration” that has slashed public investments and harmed the economy) while also increasing employment by 8.8 million jobs and cutting the deficit by $4 trillion over a decade.

The Better Off Budget is able to accomplish all of this partly because it is willing to do the one thing that Congressional majorities have refused to do: raise revenue. Estimates for the revenue provisions in the Better Off Budget were provided by Citizens for Tax Justice and the Economic Policy Institute.

The budget proposes returning to the tax rules that applied at the end of the Clinton years for Americans with incomes exceeding $250,000 and taxing investment income at the same rates as income from work. The budget also incorporates a proposal from Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky to provide additional income tax brackets (with rates of 45 percent and higher) for those with incomes exceeding $1 million.

A tax credit similar to the Making Work Pay Credit (which was provided temporarily under the recovery act enacted in 2009) would be available in 2015 and 2016, and in a scaled back form in 2017. Citizens for Tax Justice has explained that the Making Work Pay Credit was more targeted towards families struggling to get by, and therefore more effective in stimulating the economy, than other tax breaks.

The Better Off Budget also makes some important changes to the corporate income tax, including doing away with the rule allowing American corporations to “defer” paying U.S. taxes on profits that are officially “offshore.” CTJ has long argued that deferral encourages corporations to use accounting tricks to make their U.S. profits appear to be earned in countries where they won’t be taxed (offshore tax havens). While the administration and members of Congress have proposed complicated rules to crack down on this type of tax avoidance, the most straightforward and effective solution is to stop rewarding these games by ending deferral.

Because the Congressional Progressive Caucus is willing to take on the corporate interests and others that the rest of Congress tiptoes around, it is able to put forward a plan that actually provides more deficit reduction with less pain for working Americans. The Better Off Budget would reduce the deficit to 1.4 percent of gross domestic product (1.4 percent of economic output) within a decade, as illustrated by the chart from the Caucus below. The President’s budget would leave a larger deficit, 1.6 percent of GDP, while under the current law the deficit would be 4 percent of GDP.

New CTJ Reports Explain Obama's Budget Tax Provisions

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New CTJ Reports Explain the Tax Provisions in President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2015 Budget Proposal

Two new reports from Citizens for Tax Justice break down the tax provisions in President Obama’s budget.

The first CTJ report explains the tax provisions that would benefit individuals, along with provisions that would raise revenue. The second CTJ report explains business loophole-closing provisions that the President proposes as part of an effort to reduce the corporate tax rate.

Both reports provide context that is not altogether apparent in the 300-page Treasury Department document explaining these proposals.

For example, the Treasury describes a “detailed set of proposals that close loopholes and provide incentives” that would be “enacted as part of long-run revenue-neutral tax reform” for businesses. What they actually mean is that the President, for some reason, has decided that the corporate tax rate should be dramatically lowered and he has come up with loophole-closing proposals that would offset about a fourth of the costs, so Congress is on its own to come up with the rest of the money.

To take another example, when the Treasury explains that the President proposes to “conform SECA taxes for professional service businesses,” what they actually mean is, “The President proposes to close the loophole that John Edwards and Newt Gingrich used to avoid paying the Medicare tax.”

And when the Treasury says the President proposes to “limit the total accrual of tax-favored retirement benefits,” what they really mean to say is, “We don’t know how Mitt Romney ended up with $87 million in a tax-subsidized retirement account, but we sure as hell don’t want to let that happen again.”

Read the CTJ reports:

The President’s FY 2015 Budget: Tax Provisions to Benefit Individuals and Raise Revenue

The President’s FY 2015 Budget: Tax Provisions Affecting Businesses

New Comprehensive Tax Reform Plan from Citizens for Tax Justice

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Citizens for Tax Justice released a detailed tax reform plan this week that accomplishes the goals we set out in an earlier report: raise revenue, enhance fairness, and reduce tax incentives for corporations to shift jobs and profits offshore.

A budget resolution approved by the House of Representatives in the spring called for a tax reform that raises no new revenue, while a budget resolution approved by the Senate called for $975 billion in new revenue over a decade. CTJ’s report on goals for tax reform explained why we need even more revenue than the Senate resolution calls for, and the plan we released this week would raise $2 trillion over a decade

Our proposal would accomplish this by ending some of the biggest breaks for wealthy individuals and corporations. The proposal includes the following reforms:

■ Repealing the special, low tax rates for capital gains and stock dividends, as well as the rule allowing accumulated capital gains to escape taxation when the owner of an asset dies.

■ Setting the top tax rate at 36 percent — which would be a significant tax increase on the wealthy because this rate would apply to the capital gains and stock dividends that mostly go to the richest Americans and which are now taxed at much lower rates.

■ Increasing the standard deduction by $2,200 for singles and twice that amount for married couples.

■ Replacing several “backdoor” taxes (like the Alternative Minimum Tax) with President Obama’s proposal to limit the tax savings of every dollar of deductions and exclusions to 28 cents.

■ Repealing several enormous corporate tax breaks, including the rule allowing American corporations to “defer” paying U.S. taxes on their offshore profits until those profits are officially brought to the U.S.

Read our tax reform reports:

Tax Reform Goals: Raise Revenue, Enhance Fairness, End Offshore Shelters
September 23, 2013

Tax Reform Details: An Example of Comprehensive Reform
October 23, 2013

New CTJ Report: Reforming Individual Income Tax Expenditures

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Congress Should End the Most Regressive Ones, Maintain the Progressive Ones, and Reform the Rest to Be More Progressive and Better Achieve Policy Goals

A new report from Citizens for Tax Justice explains how Senators responding to the “blank slate” approach to tax reform should prioritize which “tax expenditures” to preserve, repeal or reform.

Read the report.

Senators Max Baucus and Orrin Hatch, chairman and ranking member of the tax-writing committee in the Senate, have asked their colleagues to assume tax reform starts from a “blank slate,” meaning a tax code with no tax expenditures (special breaks and subsidies provided through the tax code). Senators are asked to provide letters to Baucus and Hatch by this Friday explaining which tax expenditures they would like to see retained in a new tax code.

CTJ’s report evaluates the ten costliest tax expenditures for individuals based on progressivity and effectiveness in achieving their stated non-tax policy goals — which include subsidizing home ownership and encouraging charitable giving, increasing investment, encouraging work, and many other stated goals.

CTJ’s report concludes that:

1. Tax expenditures that take the form of breaks for investment income (capital gains and stock dividends) are the most regressive and least effective in achieving their stated policy goals, and therefore should be repealed.

2. Tax expenditures that take the form of refundable credits based on earnings, like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit, are progressive and achieve their other main policy goal (encouraging work) and therefore should be preserved.

3. Tax expenditures that take the form of itemized deductions are regressive and have mixed results in achieving their policy goals, and therefore should be reformed.

4. Tax expenditures that take the form of exclusions for some forms of compensation from taxable income (like the exclusion of employer-provided health insurance and pension contributions) are not particularly regressive and have some success in achieving their policy goals, and therefore should be generally preserved.

Read the report.

The Myth that Tax Cuts Pay for Themselves Is Back

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Our report on Paul Ryan’s most recent budget notes that it includes a package of specific tax cuts but claims to maintain current law revenue levels, without specifying how. Our report assumes tax expenditures would have to be limited, as all of Ryan’s previous budget plans propose explicitly, to offset the costs of his tax cuts.

It is possible that Ryan doesn’t believe he would have to make up all of those costs, because he might believe that at least some of his tax cuts pay for themselves. In other words, Ryan might rely, at least partly, on “supply-side” economics.

One of the main ideas behind supply-side economics is that reducing tax rates will unleash so much productivity and investment and so much growth in incomes and profits that the tax collected on those increased incomes and profits will make up for the revenue loss from the reduction in tax rates.

The section of Ryan’s budget plan on tax reform cites, and is nearly identical to, a letter from Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp and the Republican members of his committee explaining that they seek a tax reform that would “lead to a stronger economy, which would create more American jobs and higher wages. More employment and higher wages would lead to higher tax revenues which would simultaneously address both the nation's economic and fiscal reforms.” The letter goes on to say that they “will continue to oppose any and all efforts to increase tax revenue by any means other than through economic growth.”

Having Failed to Win the Argument Over the Income Tax Cuts and Capital Gains Tax Cuts, Supply-Siders Now Turn to Corporate Tax Cuts

Of course, if there was any possibility that we could actually get more revenue by paying less in taxes, we would all support that. The idea is so appealing that many lawmakers cling to it despite overwhelming evidence that it’s wrong.

Anti-tax lawmakers and pundits have tried to use the supply-side argument for several different types of tax cuts.

For example, the George W. Bush administration had the Treasury investigate whether or not the Bush income tax cuts would pay for themselves, and the Treasury reported back that, sadly, they would not.

To take another example, the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal has been obsessed for several years with the idea that income tax breaks for capital gains (if not other types of personal income tax cuts) pay for themselves. But the evidence shows that revenue from taxing capital gains rises and falls with the stock market and the overall economy, not changes in tax policy.

And yet another example is the apparent campaign underway now to convince Congress and the public that cuts in the corporate tax rate pay for themselves. On the same day as Ryan released his budget plan, the Tax Foundation released a report claiming that reductions in corporate tax rates pay for themselves. Two days earlier, Arthur Laffer, the leading proponent of “supply-side” economics, made the same argument in a U.S.A. Today column. (See ITEP's critiques of Laffer's other work as junk economics.)

The Tax Foundation report is particularly telling. The Tax Foundation explains that their “dynamic” estimates assume that changing the corporate tax rate affects the economy. But stop and think about what this means exactly. They are essentially feeding assumptions into a model and then reporting the result.

The effect of taxes on the economy is complicated, especially when you consider that taxes fund public investments (like infrastructure and education) that enhance economic growth by enabling businesses to profit.

The Tax Foundation has fed their model assumptions about the effects of taxes on the economy and assumptions about how significant those effects are. If they assumed that cutting corporate tax rates had a negative impact or only a small positive impact on the economy, then their model would conclude that these tax cuts do not pay for themselves. But they assume a large positive impact on the economy, and their model therefore concludes that such tax cuts do pay for themselves.   

Some Members of Congress Seek “Dynamic Scoring” for Tax Proposals

It is unclear that proponents of supply-side economics will be any more successful with corporate income tax cuts than they have been with other types of tax cuts. But there is a real danger because anti-tax lawmakers often demand that Congress’s process of estimating the revenue effects of tax proposals be altered to take supply-side economics into account.

In other words, some lawmakers demand that the revenue estimating process assume that tax cuts cause economic growth, which can in turn offset at least part of the revenue loss — meaning tax cuts can at least partially pay for themselves.

Using this type of “dynamic scoring,” as it is often called, would be particularly manipulative. For one thing, even if we believed that tax cuts putting money into the economy boosts growth enough to partially offset the costs, then it’s equally logical to assume that spending cuts taking money out of the economy would reduce growth enough to limit the amount of deficit reduction they achieve.

But of course Paul Ryan and Dave Camp, who are championing a budget plan that includes massive spending cuts, do not suggest that the estimating process be altered to assume that such effects on the economy limit the amount of savings achieved. These are not the type of “dynamic” effects they have in mind.

Ending Tax Shelters for Investment Income Is Key to Tax Reform

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A new working paper on tax reform options from Citizens for Tax Justice has a section describing a category of revenue-raising proposals that has not received much attention: ending tax shelters for investment income. As former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers noted in a recent op-ed: “What’s needed is an element that has largely been absent to date: [reducing] the numerous exclusions from the definition of adjusted gross income that enable the accumulation of great wealth with the payment of little or no taxes.”

The problem addressed by these proposals is partly related to the problem posed by the special, low rates that apply to capital gains and stock dividends. (Congress certainly needs to eliminate those special rates, so that investment income is taxed just like any other income.)

The breaks and loopholes criticized by Larry Summers and explained in CTJ’s new working paper allow wealthy individuals to delay or completely avoid paying taxes on their capital gains — at any rate. It does not matter what tax rate applies to capital gains so long as the wealthy can use these shelters to avoid paying any tax at all.

Path to Reform that Taxes All Income at the Same Rates

If these tax shelters are eliminated, that may make it easier for Congress to tackle the other problem with investment income — the special low rates that apply to investment income that takes the form of capital gains and stock dividends. Currently, the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT), the official revenue estimator for Congress, assumes that people will respond to hikes in tax rates on capital gains by holding onto their assets or finding ways to avoid the tax, reducing the amount of revenue that can be raised from such a rate hike. (CTJ has explained why JCT’s assumptions are overblown in the appendix of our 2012 report on revenue-raising options.)

But if the various shelters that people use to avoid taxes on capital gains are closed off, JCT could logically assume that raising tax rates on capital gains will raise substantially more revenue.

Tax Capital Gains at Death

The tax shelter that is probably the largest, in terms of revenue, is the “stepped-up basis” for capital gains at death. Income that takes the form of capital gains on assets that are not sold during the owner’s lifetime escape taxation entirely. The heirs of the assets enjoy a “stepped-up basis” in the assets, meaning that any accrued gains at the time the decedent died are never taxed. (The estate tax once ensured that such gains would be subject to some taxation, but repeal of three-fourths of the estate tax has been made permanent in the fiscal cliff deal.)

The justification for the stepped-up basis seems to be the difficulty in ascertaining the basis (the purchase price, generally) of an asset that a taxpayer held for many years before leaving it to his or her heirs at death.

But this difficulty (which is decreasing rapidly because of digital records) does not justify the sweeping rule allowing stepped up basis for all assets left to heirs — even assets that have a clearly recorded value and assets that were only acquired right before death.

It is also not obvious that this difficultly with determining the basis is that different after the death of the owner of the asset. Consider an asset that was held for, say, 40 years and bequeathed at death and an asset that was held for 40 years and then sold to fund the taxpayer’s retirement. In the former situation, the gains that accrued over those 40 years are never taxed, but in the latter situation they are taxed. But any difficulties in determining basis would seem to be the same in these situations.

The proposal to tax capital gains at death, and the others described in the working paper, challenge some breaks that wealthy individuals and their accountants and lawyers are deeply attached to. But the vast majority of Americans whose income takes the form of wages are not able to use these maneuvers to delay or avoid taxes on their income. They would have trouble understanding why these tax shelters for the wealthy should be preserved while Congress considers dramatic cuts to public investments that support all Americans.

After Fiscal Cliff Deal, Warren Buffett Still Pays Low Tax Rate, GE Still Avoids Taxes

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Perhaps the most striking thing about tax policy in 2012 is that it featured a presidential campaign focused on taxes and then ended with major legislation that resolved none of the issues raised in that campaign.

Even after the fiscal cliff deal (the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012) takes effect, Warren Buffett and Mitt Romney will still pay a lower effective federal tax rate than many relatively middle-income working people. Their effective tax rate may be five percentage points higher (since the capital gains and stock dividends that wealthy investors live on will be taxed at a top rate of 20 percent rather than 15 percent) but this does not eliminate the unfairness that Warren Buffett highlighted.

Meanwhile, the tax loopholes that allow profitable corporations like General Electric (GE) to avoid taxes were actually extended as part of the fiscal cliff deal. The law includes a package of provisions often called the “extenders” because they extend several special interest breaks for one or two years each. The extenders officially only add $76 billion to the costs of the law, but a recent CTJ report explains how their cost is likely to be far greater because Congress has shown a desire to extend these provisions again each time they expire.

One of the “extenders” is the one-year extension of “bonus depreciation,” which allows companies to write off the costs of equipment purchases far more quickly than those assets actually wear out. When these purchases are debt-financed, the result is that these investments have a negative effective tax rate, meaning the investments are actually more profitable after-tax than before tax. While corporations don’t usually reveal exactly which loopholes facilitate their tax avoidance, this one is certainly among those used effectively by GE and the other corporate tax dodgers identified in CTJ’s reports.

However, another tax break extended in the fiscal cliff deal actually has been identified by GE, in its public filings with the SEC, as having a significant effect in lowering its effective tax rate. This is the so-called “active financing exception,” which was extended through 2013 (and retroactively to 2012, since it had expired at the end of 2011). A CTJ report from 2012 explains that this break essentially makes it easier for U.S. corporations with income from financial activities to shift their profits to offshore tax havens.

The New York Times article from March 2011 that famously exposed GE’s tax avoidance explained that the head of GE’s 1,000-person tax department literally “dropped to his knees” in the House Ways and Means office as he begged for — and won — an extension of the active financing exception.

One thing is clear: Despite what Senator McConnell says, the tax debate is not over. There is a need for real tax reform, which means eliminating loopholes and ending the practice of extending “temporary” loopholes every couple years.  

Disturbing Trends in New IRS Data on Income

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While most of the IRS’s various statistical reports tend to inspire little excitement in the public and media, the agency’s latest report,“Individual Income Tax Returns, 2010” is something of a barnburner, in part because it confirms several troubling trends in the federal income tax.  A few stand outs:

1. Our Income Tax Code Stops Being Progressive at $2 Million of Income

According to the new IRS data, the average effective income tax rate actually drops from 25.3 percent for people making (a mere) $1.5 - 2 million to 20.7 percent for taxpayers making $10 million or more in income. (Those are 2010 figures.) In other words, as a taxpayer’s income surpasses $2 million, their effective income tax rate actually goes down, which is the opposite of what should happen under a progressive tax system.

2. Average Effective Income Tax Rates on Taxpayers Making Over $500,000 Dropped In 2010

While taxpayers making between $30,000 and $499,000 saw their average effective income tax rates go up slightly between 2009 and 2010, taxpayers making $500,000 or more actually saw their average effective tax rates go down. In fact, taxpayers making $10 million or more saw their effective tax rate drop almost eight percent from 2009 to 2010. Looking over a decade (2001 to 2010), the picture is even more dramatic: taxpayers making $10 million or more saw their average effective tax rate drop by almost 21 percent.

3. The Special Low Rate on Capital Income is Driving Effective Income Tax Rates Lower for the Wealthiest of the Wealthy

What explains the drop in the average effective tax rate for people making $10 million or more between 2009 and 2010? The IRS data reveals that these taxpayers saw their reported income from capital gains and dividend income increase to 48.5 percent of their total income in 2010, compared to 35.8 percent in 2009.  That change was driven largely by the economic recovery and rebounding stock market. Because income from investments is subject to a lower preferential rate than wages or salary, the more income taxpayers earn from these sources the lower the effective tax rate they will ultimately pay. As Citizens for Tax Justice has explained, ending the tax preference on capital gains and dividends is critical to ensuring that the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share.

Romney's Tax Rate Is Not "Fair," And Neither Are His Tax Policies

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In a 60 Minutes interview after his 2011 tax returns were released, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was asked if his federal income tax rate was fair.

CBS’s Scott Pelley: And you paid 14 percent in federal taxes. That's the capital gains rate. Is that fair to the guy who makes $50,000 and paid a higher rate than you did?

Romney: It is a low rate. And one of the reasons why the capital gains tax rate is lower is because capital has already been taxed once at the corporate level, as high as 35 percent.

Pelley: So you think it is fair?

Romney: Yeah, I think it's the right way to encourage economic growth, to get people to invest, to start businesses, to put people to work.

Mitt Romney is wrong, and so is the tax system that he defends. His proposals would make it even worse.

In defending his tax rate, Romney is relying on the double taxation argument – that it’s fair to tax capital gain and dividend income at a much lower rate than other income, like salaries and wages, because it’s already been taxed once at the corporate level.

Here are three reasons why the double-taxation argument is unconvincing:

Ÿ1) Much of the income qualifying for the low rate is not related to corporations
2) Even the income that is related to corporations may not have been previously taxed
3) Romney’s income in particular is not from corporate profits

For one thing, all kinds of income that didn’t come from corporations is taxed at the special low rate, such as profits from selling office buildings, corn futures and exotic sports cars. Romney’s own reported income is dominated by so-called capital gains that are really “carried interest” – compensation from managing Bain Capital, his leveraged-buyout firm, that he can restructure as investment income so it doesn’t get taxed like ordinary salary or wages. Romney also has millions in gains from hedge funds, bonds, and foreign corporations, none of which was subject to the U.S. corporate income tax.

Even when corporate dividends are paid to shareholders, it’s highly likely that the corporation hasn’t paid much tax on the income they use to cover those dividend payments. Take G.E., for example. Over the last decade the company has paid out $87 billion in dividends but paid an average federal income tax rate of just 1.8 percent.

Significantly, many of the companies managed by Romney’s Bain Capital aren’t paying income tax either. Sensata Technologies, for example, used to pay tax – before Bain loaded it up with debt and started moving its operations offshore. Now it doesn’t have any U.S. income to tax

But wait, defenders of low- or no-capital gains taxes say – the money Romney earned to make those investments was taxed when he earned it, and then the government taxes it again when the investments go up in value. Not true! Only the appreciation in the investments is taxed when you sell. The original investment isn’t taxed again.

When all is said and done, the low capital gains tax rate is a windfall for the wealthy. In 2013, it’s estimated that the share of capital gains going to the top five percent will be 83 percent. This low tax rate on capital gains and dividends is also the reason that Warren Buffett pays a lower tax rate than his secretary and that Mitt Romney pays a lower rate than the middle-income worker 60 Minutes asked him about.

Whether you make $60,000 or $60 million, if your income is from work you’ll pay more than twice as much federal income tax than someone whose income is from wealth, and you’ll pay payroll taxes on top of that.  Romney’s tax plan would make it even worse because he’s proposing to completely exempt up to $200,000 of interest, dividends, and capital gains from income taxes.

Now, this might sound great to a lot of middle-income Americans who have a little bit of investment income – saving the tax on their interest from the bank or on dividends from that mutual fund. But consider this: under Romney’s plan, an heiress or day trader with $200,000 of investment income but no salary or business income would pay zero federal income tax, while working Americans with that much income would pay plenty of tax on their salaries and wages.

Getting rid of the unwarranted tax breaks for wealthy investors and treating working taxpayers more fairly should be at the heart of real tax reform. But real tax reform is just the opposite of what Mitt Romney has in mind.

Would Repealing the Tax Break for Capital Gains Raise Revenue?

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A lot of attention has been given to a recent report from Congress’s non-partisan Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) on one possible approach to tax reform. Very generally, the gist of the findings is that getting rid of itemized deductions and the exemption for state and local bond interest can raise enough revenue to offset the cost of repealing certain tax provisions meant to limit tax expenditures for the well-off (the Alternative Minimum Tax being the most prominent among them) and offset the costs of a very small reduction in income tax rates.

There’s a lot to be said about the debate around this, but right now, we’d like to focus on one particularly confusing aspect of the report — its treatment of capital gains.

Currently, capital gains (profits from selling assets) are taxed at lower rates than other types of income like wages. Most capital gains go to the richest one percent of taxpayers, and this tax preference is the main reason why wealthy investors like Mitt Romney and Warren Buffett can pay a lower percentage of their income in federal taxes than many middle-income people.

So there’s an obvious fairness-based argument for ending special, low income tax rates on capital gains and simply taxing them at the same rates as other income, which would be a tax increase mostly on wealthy investors. But would this actually raise much revenue? Surprisingly, two non-partisan Congressional research agencies disagree on this point.

JCT seems to believe that little or no revenue can be raised from this reform, while the Congressional Research Service (CRS) believes JCT is too pessimistic. Citizens for Tax Justice recently followed the approaches supported by CRS, which seem far more plausible, and estimated that ending the preference for capital gains would raise $533 billion over a decade.

JCT assumes large behavioral effects on the part of investors, who (the argument goes) would be inclined to hold onto their assets longer if they will be taxed more upon selling them, resulting in fewer capital gains to be taxed. JCT finds these behavioral effects to be so large that it might estimate no revenue gain from taxing capital gains at the same rates as “ordinary” income. The recent JCT report on tax reform seems to suggest that taxing capital gains as ordinary income either loses some revenue or has no effect on revenue.

On the other hand, CRS has reviewed quantitative research and concluded that JCT significantly overestimates these behavioral impacts. CRS notes, for example, that several economists believe that there are some short-term behavioral effects that JCT and others confuse for long-term effects.

One of the economists cited by CRS is Len Burman, a professor at Syracuse University and former head of the Tax Policy Center, who testified in September before the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee on the benefits of ending the tax preference for capital gains. CTJ’s $533 billion estimate is calculated assuming the behavioral effects found in Burman’s research, which are much smaller than what JCT assumes. (The appendix in our report on revenue-raising options goes into great detail on the methodology.)

It’s not obvious which approach lawmakers will find more convincing. JCT usually has the final say on revenue estimates, but not always. For example, JCT estimates that both the Republicans’ approach and the Democrats’ approach to the Bush tax cuts would cost trillions of dollars in revenue (because Republicans would extend all of those tax cuts while Democrats would extend most of those tax cuts). And yet, nearly everyone in Congress has ignored those estimates. But that’s a topic for another day.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, an organization “committed to educating the public about issues that have significant fiscal policy impact” and running several programs to address the budget deficit, issued a working paper last week calling for corporate tax reform that has no impact on the budget deficit.

The paper actually does a good job of laying out the issues and the options, explaining that a corporate tax rate reduction could be enacted without increasing the budget deficit so long as lawmakers choose to reduce or eliminate tax expenditures (tax loopholes and tax preferences) to offset the costs of lowering the rate.

But why would a deficit-hawk group not call for a more ambitious goal than simply avoiding an increase in the deficit? Doesn’t everyone agree that we should (eventually anyway) reduce the budget deficit? 

Part of the problem may be that there is a lot of misinformation about the corporate income tax. Citizens for Tax Justice has as fact sheet and a report explaining why Congress should enact a corporate tax reform that is revenue-positive (that raises tax dollars). They address some of the common fallacies about corporate taxes.

For example, corporate leaders and their lobbyists sometimes claim that the corporate tax is ultimately borne by American workers, who pay the price when the tax pushes corporations offshore. This can be disproven by the research that finds the vast majority of the corporate tax to be borne by the owners of corporate stocks and business assets and by the common sense observation that corporations would not bother lobbying Congress to lower their taxes if they did not believe their shareholders were the people ultimately paying them.

CTJ is not alone in believing corporations should contribute more. Last year, a letter we circulated calling for revenue-positive corporate tax reform was signed by 250 organizations, including national groups and state-based groups in every state, before being sent to every member of Congress. The letter explains,

Some lawmakers have proposed to eliminate corporate tax subsidies and use all of the resulting revenue savings to pay for a reduction in the corporate income tax rate. In contrast, we strongly believe most, if not all, of the revenue saved from eliminating corporate tax subsidies should go towards deficit reduction and towards creating the healthy, educated workforce and sound infrastructure that will make our nation more competitive.

This year, Americans for Tax Fairness, the campaign formed by several national organizations (including CTJ) to raise awareness about revenue issues, decided that one of its basic principles is that “any corporate tax reform should require the corporate sector to contribute more in federal income-tax revenue than it does now, not less.”

Mitt Romney's 2011 Returns Reveal a Tax Code Stacked in Favor of the Very Rich

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Mitt Romney’s 2011 Returns Reveal a Tax Code Stacked in Favor of the Very Rich Because of Loopholes and Special Rates Not Available to Ordinary Taxpayers

Washington, DC – Since Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ) first calculated that GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney likely paid a 2010 federal income tax rate of 14 percent in October of 2011, CTJ’s analysts have been helping to explain the features of our tax code that allow high wealth individuals like Romney to pay such a low federal income tax rate. The explanation is that loopholes in the tax code benefit the most affluent. 

After reviewing Mitt Romney’s 2011 return (an estimate of which he released in January), and the 20-year summary of the candidate’s taxes issued by his lawyer, CTJ’s Senior Counsel for Federal Tax Policy, Rebecca Wilkins, issued the following statement:

“It’s an indictment of the federal tax code that a man of Mitt Romney’s wealth could pay a federal tax rate as low as 10 percent. While he chose to forgo deductions for charitable contributions in order to keep his “commitment to the public that his tax rate would be above 13 percent,” bringing his rate up to 14 percent for 2011, it is still outrageous that the code allows such a low rate.

“He also takes advantage of a special low rate on investment income. The preferential rate on capital gains and dividends saved Mitt Romney a whopping $1.2 million in taxes in 2011, cutting his tax bill almost in half.  He would have paid $3.1 million in taxes without that special treatment. And much of his low-rate income is really compensation from Bain Capital that should have been taxed like regular wages or salary, but is disguised as capital gains using the “carried interest” loophole.

“Romney also paid $675,000 under the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT). If his own tax plan, which eliminates the AMT, had been in place in 2011, he would have saved himself an additional $675,000, or one third of his entire federal tax bill, and reduced his effective rate to 9 percent.

“Also notice that Mitt Romney’s tax return for 2011 is almost twice as long as it was in 2010. It is 379 pages long, and 250 pages are foreign entity disclosure forms. Put simply, that’s 250 pages about his offshore investments.

“Further, the summary provided by his lawyer is playing games by averaging Romney’s 20-year tax rate. Including the years 1992-97 skewed his rate upwards because during those years, the capital gains rate was 28 percent instead of the 15 percent it is now. If they’d averaged only the last 15 years, his rate would have been much lower.

“And one final point is that Romney continued to work and make lots of money even when his capital gains tax rate was almost double the current rate, the rate he wants to retain.  Yet he says that the low capital gains rate is essential to incentivizing rich people to do what they do.  How does he explain that?”


Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ), founded in 1979, is a 501 (c)(4) public interest research and advocacy organization focusing on federal, state and local tax policies and their impact upon our nation (

For Immediate Release: September 20, 2012

Rare Joint House-Senate Hearing on Tax Reform Will Fail without Commitment to Repeal Capital Gains Tax Break

 New Report Shows All Current Proposals Give Richest Taxpayers a Break More than a Thousand Times Larger Than They Give Middle Income Taxpayers

Washington, DC – In advance of a rare joint House-Senate hearing on tax reform and capital gains, a new report finds that the special low tax rates for capital gains and stock dividends will continue to provide huge benefits mainly to the richest one percent of Americans, no matter how Congress resolves the standoff over the expiring Bush-era tax cuts.

The report, from Citizens for Tax Justice, finds that the richest one percent of Americans would enjoy an average break of $41,010 on capital gains and dividends next year under the bill passed last August by the Republican-controlled House to extend all the Bush tax cuts. They would enjoy a slightly lower average tax break of $40,990 under the bill passed by Senate Democrats last July to extend most, but not all, of the Bush tax cuts. Americans in the middle fifth of the income distribution would enjoy an average capital gains and dividend tax break of just $30 next year under either approach. The report is available at this link.

Capital gains, which are the profits obtained from selling assets for more than their purchase price, were already taxed at lower rates than other income when President George W. Bush took office. The Bush tax cuts lowered the capital gains rate further and expanded the break to apply to stock dividends.

“The bad news is that none of the approaches to extending the Bush tax cuts would change the fact that these lower tax rates for investment income are a huge break benefiting the very wealthiest Americans,” said Steve Wamhoff, Legislative Director at Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ). “The good news is that both parties are talking about extending those tax cuts for only one year and then devising a comprehensive tax reform that makes dramatic changes. The question now is how Congress will define ‘reform.’”

The CTJ report, Ending the Capital Gains Tax Preference Would Improve Fairness, Raise Revenue and Simplify the Tax Code, released today makes five points.

1) The capital gains tax preference mainly benefits the richest one percent of Americans.
2) It reduces revenue, despite claims to the contrary.
3) It gives rise to tax shelters and makes the tax code overly complicated.
4) These problems will be mitigated, but certainly not eliminated, by the reform of the Hospital Insurance tax coming into effect in 2013.
5) The way to fully resolve the problems described here is to eliminate the special, low personal income tax rates for capital gains so that they are taxed just like any other income.

The hearing, which is scheduled for today at 10 a.m. EST, will be held jointly by the House Ways and Means Committee, which is controlled by Republicans, and the Senate Finance Committee, which is controlled by Democrats. The hearing is part of a series of unusual joint hearings to address topics related to tax reform.

Many members of the two committees have shown a willingness to retain, and even expand, some tax preference for investment income. The CTJ report recommends eliminating it altogether and points out that repealing this break completely is not a radical proposal – the Tax Reform Act of 1986 eliminated the capital gains tax break so that all income was taxed at the same rates. Preferential rates for capital gains were subsequently reintroduced into the tax code and the break was gradually increased by subsequent Presidents and Congresses. It was expanded dramatically under President George W. Bush.

“Any overhaul of the tax code that continues to tax the income of wealthy investors like Warren Buffett at lower rates than other income is not worthy of the term ‘reform,’” said Wamhoff.

Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ), founded in 1979, is a 501 (c)(4) public interest research and advocacy organization focusing on federal, state and local tax policies and their impact upon our nation (

Are Bain's Tax Practices Actually Illegal?

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More and more people are asking if Bain Capital’s tax avoidance strategies are more than merely aggressive. On August 23, released a staggering 950 pages of documents related to Bain, the private equity firm that Mitt Romney founded, that confirm a lot of what we had previously surmised, including the fact that the Bain private equity funds set up “blocker” corporations to help tax-exempt investors avoid the unrelated business income tax and help foreign investors avoid tax in the U.S. and in their home countries.

CTJ senior counsel Rebecca Wilkins summarized it for Huffington Post: “The Bain documents posted yesterday show that Bain Capital will go to great lengths to help its partners and its investors avoid tax. Beyond simply putting their funds offshore, the Bain private equity funds are using aggressive tax-planning techniques such as blocker corporations, equity swaps, alternative investment vehicles, and management fee conversions.”

The management fee conversions, detailed in several of the fund documents, do what they sound like they do: they convert some of the private equity firms’ annual management fees from clients, which would be taxed as ordinary income, into increased shares of partnership profits known as “carried interest”.  Carried interest is how these firms have structured their performance-based compensation from managing their clients’ investments, and carried interest is taxed at the special low rate at which capital gains are taxed. The management fee conversion is an effort to get yet another form of client compensation taxed at the capital gains rate, which is less than half the rate at which it would be taxed if it were ordinary income. These conversions save private equity firms’ partners millions of dollars in income taxes (the Bain partners alone have saved an estimated $220 million).

Colorado Law Professor Vic Fleischer, an expert on the taxation of private equity, quickly branded the management fee conversions as improper. “Unlike carried interest, which is unseemly but perfectly legal, Bain’s management fee conversions are not legal.”

It looks as though the New York Attorney General agrees. In July, weeks before the Gawker document dump, AG Eric Schneiderman served subpoenas on more than a dozen private equity firms, including Bain Capital.  The AG’s office is seeking documents related to whether the firms improperly converted management fees into additional carried interest, and running the investigation through its Taxpayer Protection Bureau

As controversial as private equity firm tax practices have become (thanks to Mitt Romney’s candidacy), we are likely to be hearing more about this investigation soon. Stay tuned.


So the modest fee that the Affordable Health Care Act will impose on people who choose not to have health insurance is a “tax,” according to a majority of Supreme Court justices. Hooray! That characterization made the Act pass constitutional muster even in the opinion of this very conservative Supreme Court.

There’s more good news. It’s a tax that hardly anyone will pay.

That’s because for the vast majority of Americans who don’t have employer health coverage, the government subsidies to buy insurance will be so large that it would be foolish not to buy insurance.

For starters, any family with income less than 133 percent of the poverty line (that means all families of four with incomes of $30,000 or less) will be eligible to sign up for free coverage under Medicaid.

Above that level of income, the government will provide cash subsidies to buy insurance, starting at almost 100 percent of the cost and gradually phasing down. But the subsidies won’t disappear for a family of four until its income exceeds about $90,000.

For example, a family of four earning $50,000 that buys health insurance will get a government subsidy equal to 60-70 percent of the cost of the premiums.

Because of these large subsidies to buy insurance, it’s estimated that the new “tax” on those who fail to get health insurance will apply to less than 3 percent of all households. So don’t worry. You’re almost certainly not one of them.

Nonsensical Claim of Largest Tax Increase in History

Some opponents of the health care reform law have taken to calling it the largest tax increase in history. The fee for not having health insurance would be, of course, relatively small, raising around $7 billion a year (just 0.03 percent of GDP) and increasing federal revenue by 0.15 percent (one sixth of one percent).

Even if you count all the tax increases in the health law, that still amounts to less than the tax increases President Reagan enacted from 1982 through 1983. When you subtract the tax cuts (the refundable credits to help families obtain health insurance and the tax credits for small businesses) the net effect of the law is to increase taxes by $653 billion over the next decade, which is about 0.3 percent of GDP. By way of comparison, from 1982 through 1983, President Reagan raised taxes by 1.8 percent of GDP. (And of course, there were much larger tax increases in our history, like the tax increase during World War II that equaled 14.8 percent of GDP.)

It’s also important to note that about three-fourths of the tax increases in the health reform law apply to corporations (drug companies, medical device manufacturers, insurance companies) and married couples making over $250,000 and single people making over $200,000.

Health Reform Law Includes a Major Win for Tax Fairness

The tax increase on high-income individuals is particularly important because it reduces the bias in the tax code in favor of investment income and against income from work.

This provision, which was proposed in 2009 by Citizens for Tax Justice, reforms the Hospital Insurance (HI) tax that funds part of Medicare so that it’s more progressive and no longer exempts the income of people who live off their investments. The HI tax will effectively have a top rate of 3.8 percent that applies to both earnings and most investment income, and which only applies to taxpayers with incomes in excess of $250,000/$200,000.

This provision reduces, but does not eliminate, the ability of people who live off their investments to have a lower effective tax rate than people who live on earnings. It’s another reason why the health law is victory for middle-income working Americans.

Photo of Supreme Court via OZ in OH Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

The IRS 35,000: How the Richest Americans Pay the Lowest Taxes

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A new study from the Internal Revenue Service confirms your worst fears about the tax code: it’s riddled with loopholes and Congress isn’t doing anything about it.  Year after year since 1977, the IRS has dutifully issued its “data on individual income tax returns reporting income of $200,000 or more, including the number of such returns reporting no income tax liability and the importance of various tax provisions in making these returns nontaxable” because Congress mandates it. And year after year, it shows that some of the very richest Americans are finding entirely legal ways to avoid federal income taxes altogether.

The new (and most recent) IRS data show that in 2009, more than 35,000 Americans* with incomes over $200,000 paid not a dime in federal income tax. For this group—less than one percent of all the Americans with incomes over $200,000, according to the study— itemized deductions and tax-exempt bond interest are among the main tax breaks that make this tax-avoiding feat possible. 

And, as if to illustrate how loopholes never die, these two tax breaks are among the oldest on the books; the exemption of bond interest dates to the century old statute establishing the income tax itself!

Sensible tax reforms could close (or at least shrink) these holes in the tax code.  The president, for example, has proposed a limit on the value of itemized deductions for the wealthiest Americans, and to extend the “Build America Bonds” program which keeps revenues flowing to cities but phases out the tax shelter the current system provides for the bond holders.

Of course, these wealthy taxpayers avoiding all their federal income tax responsibilities don’t even include the ones paying zero or low federal taxes because of the low rates at which investment income is taxed.

There is no excuse for hundred-year-old loopholes in a tax code: it’s time for Washington to clean up the tax code and take a brave stand against unwarranted exemptions that drain revenues and reward the rich.

* Others have focused on a smaller number of taxpayers, 21,000, who have an adjusted gross income (AGI) of over $200,000. But simple AGI excludes many types of income, such as tax exempt bond interest which is key to the low tax liabilities.

What's Really "Nauseating": Tax Subsidies for Bain Capital Partners

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If your family makes around $60,000 a year and you work for a living, there’s a good chance you pay a larger percentage of your income in federal taxes than Mitt Romney and the other partners at Bain Capital.

We have explained before that a good portion of millionaires who live off investments pay a lower effective tax rate than people who work for their $60,000 a year.  Worse, the “carried interest” loophole allows people like Romney to enjoy the special low tax rate for investment income even though their income is really from work. CTJ’s Bob McIntyre was the first to predict that Mitt Romney’s effective federal rate was under 15 percent as a result.

Now comes Newark’s Democratic mayor, Cory Booker, defending Bain Capital and other “private equity” firms (really, buyout firms), calling attacks on Romney’s old firm “nauseating.”

Let’s put aside for a moment that fact that private equity firms buy up companies and fire people, and the fact that Mitt Romney doesn’t seem to see the difference between his former job of maximizing profits for investors and the job he seeks, which should be to maximize opportunities for all Americans.

Even if you accept all of that, do you believe that what Mitt Romney did at Bain Capital is so good for America that we should subsidize him through the tax code? Do you believe that discussing the role played by these buyout funds in our economy and in our public policies is off-limits?

Members of Congress, including Democrats and Republicans, have made claims in support of the carried interest loophole that defy common sense. They argue that millionaire fund managers like Mitt Romney should continue to enjoy this tax loophole because, for example, it encourages development in poor communities, helps minorities rise in the financial world, and helps cancer patients receive life-saving treatments.

These arguments are nonsensical for reasons we’ve explained before. The carried interest loophole does not encourage investment in poor communities or new technology or anything at all because it doesn’t affect the people who actually put up money to invest. The loophole subsidizes the people who manage the money, the fund managers who enjoy the special low tax rate on the compensation they receive so long as they maximize profits.

The arguments made in defense of the buyout firms’ privileges are so absurd that they beg the question of what really motivates their proponents in both parties. We cannot say why Mayor Booker does not express any outrage that the Bain partners can pay a lower effective tax rate than many working people in his city. But we are not blind to the many, many articles about campaign contributions from these fund managers and how they have attempted to use this money to protect their privileges. Now that’s nauseating.

As Facebook's IPO Price Soars, So Does Its Tax Deduction

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In February, we noted that Facebook® will get huge federal and state income tax refunds and pay no tax for years to come because of an absurd tax break related to the stock options it granted to employees.

When employees exercise their stock options, they pay income tax on the difference between what they paid for the stock (its exercise price) and its fair market value (what it’s trading for). The employer, meanwhile, gets a tax deduction equal to the amount of that difference their employees report – even though the employer isn’t actually out any cash.

This week we have a vivid example of why this deduction makes no sense, and why Senator Carl Levin wants to see this loophole closed, too.

In February, Facebook estimated its tax deduction for the stock options it gave its employees to be $7.5 billion, based on the price of its soon-to-be publicly offered shares. But with its IPO price going up and up, the company has revised its estimated tax deduction. In documents filed with the SEC on May 15, Facebook now estimates the employee stock options that will be exercised in connection with the IPO will result in tax deductions for the company of $16 billion – more than twice their initial estimate!  This massive deduction will cost the federal and state governments about $6.4 billion in lost tax revenue.

The stock option loophole overall will cost the US treasury and taxpayers $25 billion over the next ten years. Surely there’s a better use of that money than making Mark Zuckerberg richer.

Photo of Facebook Logo via Dull Hunk Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

CEOs of Tax Dodging Corporations Ask For Personal Tax Breaks, Too

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The CEOs of 18 large corporations have published an open letter to the Treasury Secretary seeking to extend tax breaks on investment income that overwhelmingly benefit the very wealthy. Barring Congressional intervention, these special breaks for capital gains and dividends will expire at the end of this year, along with all of the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts.

In an era when fiscal austerity is a reality in America, what makes this request even more obscene is that of these 18 CEOs, four of them head corporations which have paid less than zero in federal income taxes in recent years, in spite of consistent profits.  Another two barely paid any, and another five have paid well below the statutory 35 percent corporate tax rate. In fact, among these CEOs is Lowell McAdam of Verizon, one of the most notorious tax dodging companies in the U.S.  

The 11 corporations among the 18 that have paid less than the legal federal income tax rate are:

Gale E. Klappa, Wisconsin Energy Corp. — Average Negative 13.2% tax rate 2008-11
David M. McClanahan, CenterPoint Energy — Average Negative 11.3 tax rate 2008-11
Lowell McAdam, Verizon Communications Inc. — Average Negative 3.8% tax rate 2008-11
James E. Rogers, Duke Energy Corp. — Average Negative 3.5% tax rate 2008-11
Benjamin G.S. Fowke III, Xcel Energy — Average 1.0% tax rate 2008-10
Gerard M. Anderson, DTE Energy Co. — Average 0.2% tax rate 2008-11
Gregory L. Ebel, Spectra Energy Corp. — Average 13.6% tax rate 2008-10
Thomas A. Fanning, Southern Co. — Average 17.4% tax rate 2008-10
Glen F. Post III, CenturyLink Inc. —Average 23.5% tax rate 2008-10
Thomas Farrell II, Dominion Resources Inc. — Average 24% tax rate 2008-10
D. Scott Davis, United Parcel Service — Average 24.1% tax rate 2008-10

To bolster their case, these CEO’s are parroting the common claim that ending special preferences for dividends and capital gains (both of which are predominantly held by the wealthy) will depress economic activity. History shows this is not the case.

The fact is, about 85 percent of the expiring tax breaks for capital gains and dividends go to the richest five percent of Americans; most people won’t even notice if they expire.

The fact is, two thirds of all dividends are not subject to any personal income tax because they go to tax exempt entities rather than individuals.

Why is it that when corporate CEOs speak out on tax issues, they are treated like objective financial experts, as if they had no agenda other than job growth? You only have to think for a moment to realize that CEOs, for starters, typically own substantial amounts of stock in the companies they head, so in asking for reduced taxes on investment income, these 18 CEOs are pushing for substantial personal tax cuts for themselves – on top of the huge tax breaks their companies already receive.  Futher, the corporate boards who hire and fire these CEOs are populated by the super rich who’d benefit from things like capital gains tax breaks, so they are also serving their bosses.

These 18 captains of industry are part of an ongoing and well financed effort to limit taxes on business and on the rich. Why? Because it serves their interest. Our media and lawmakers need to bear that in mind.

The Herminator Is Back - With His 9-9-9 Plan

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When CTJ analyzed Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan last year, we concluded it would cut taxes for the richest one percent by $210,000 on average and raise taxes for the bottom three-fifths of Americans by $2,000, on average if in effect in 2011. This did not surprise us, since the 9-9-9 plan incorporates elements of a “flat tax” and a national sales tax (often misleadingly called a “Fair Tax”) which are both far more regressive than our current tax system. We also concluded that the 9-9-9 plan would collect $340 billion less than our existing tax system in 2011 alone. What does surprise us is that people are still talking about the former pizza CEO’s tax plan, which is the focus of a two-day “Patriot Summit” that Cain is hosting today in Washington.

Today, Cain’s Revolution on the Hill will  roll out “the 9-9-9 educational campaign that will sweep the country in the Summer of 2012.” 

Flat tax and national sales tax plans vary, but they all would leave investment income – most of which goes to the richest Americans – untaxed. The “flat tax,” which is promoted by Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks, does not consist of one flat tax rate but actually two tax rates when you include the zero percent rate for investment income.

The national sales tax, which is promoted by the organization, is a straight-forward consumption tax, and this is likely to have the greatest impact on lower-income families who have no choice but to put all of their income towards consumption. (The other national, broad-based consumption tax you hear a lot about is a value-added tax, or VAT).

Cain is not the only presidential candidate to propose these types of radical changes to our tax system. Texas Governor Rick Perry flirted with both the flat tax and a national sales tax. Both Perry and Newt Gingrich eventually settled on a “flat tax” that would, like other flat tax proposals, exempt investment income from tax.

Watch this space for a look at other flat or fair tax proposals that surface during this election year.


New CTJ Report: Tax Tips with Mitt

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Millions of Americans will spend part of this upcoming weekend trying to navigate tax preparation software or filling out the actual paper forms to file their income tax returns before the Tuesday deadline. For those wishing they could pay less tax, outlined below are some tax planning ideas taken from a review of presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s tax returns.

Read the report.

Despite Claims, House "Centrist" Budget is No Simpson-Bowles Plan On Key Tax Issue

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A budget resolution held out as a “centrist” alternative to the Ryan budget plan is claimed to be based on the recommendations of the President’s fiscal commission (often called the Simpson-Bowles commission, after its co-chairs) but actually maintains the regressive capital gains break that would have been eliminated under the commission’s plan.

A recent report from CTJ finds that ending the tax preference for capital gains would raise more than half a trillion dollars over a decade and that 80 percent of the resulting tax increase would be borne by the richest one percent of taxpayers.

The plan proposed by the Simpson-Bowles commission in 2010 to reduce the budget deficit offered several alternatives to reform the tax code, all of which would eliminate the tax preference for capital gains. There is, in fact, a note under the table on page 29 of the commission’s plan saying each alternative, regardless of rates, “taxes capital gains and dividends as ordinary income.”

In stark contrast, the so-called centrist budget resolution that was introduced Monday specifically calls for "lowering individual and corporate income tax rates across-the-board with the top rate reduced to between 23 and 29 percent unless the top rate must be higher than 29 percent to offset preferential treatment for capital gains." (Italics added.)

The co-sponsors of this resolution include Reps. Jim Cooper (D-TN) Steve LaTourette (R-OH), Kurt Schrader (D-OR), Charlie Bass (R-NH), Mike Quigley (D-IL) and Tom Reed (R-NY).

Tax Reform Requires Taxing All Income at the Same Rates — as Reagan’s Did

It is virtually impossible for Congress to pass a fundamental tax reform that sweeps away tax loopholes and tax subsidies, and does so in a progressive way, without eliminating the tax subsidy that is most targeted to the rich — the capital gains tax preference.

The last major tax reform, signed into law by President Reagan in 1986, did exactly this, resulting in a personal income tax that applied the same rates to all types of income. This greatly simplified taxes and eliminated the incentive to engage in tax shelters to convert other types of income into capital gains in order to take advantage of lower income tax rates.

Simpson-Bowles Plan Was Poor Policy Even Before House “Centrists” Inserted Capital Gains Tax Preference

Even though it would have ended the capital gains tax preference, the Simpson-Bowles commission’s plan was deeply flawed and unfair for many other reasons. Chief among them, it relied on spending cuts to meet two-thirds of its deficit-reduction goal and relied on new revenue to meet just one third of that goal.

When the Simpson-Bowles plan was made public, CTJ criticized the fact that it would close tax loopholes and tax subsidies but would use most of the resulting revenue savings to reduce tax rates rather than reducing the budget deficit (which was the point of the commission, after all).

Another major problem with the plan is its call for a “territorial” tax system, which the “centrist” House budget resolution echoes. A “territorial” tax system is a euphemism for exempting the offshore profits of U.S. corporations from the corporate income tax.

Photo of Barack Obama meeting with Alan Simpsons and Erskine Bowles via White House Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

One of the greatest sources of unfairness in our tax system is the preference for investment income. Specifically, the profits investors enjoy when they sell an asset for more than they paid to acquire it (capital gains) are usually taxed at lower rates than other types of income. One argument used to justify this policy is the claim that investors will stop buying and selling assets if the profits from these sales are taxed like other types of income. CTJ’s recent report on revenue options explains that this is untrue.

Most capital gains go to the richest one percent of taxpayers, leading people like Warren Buffett to criticize this tax preference for allowing some millionaires to pay lower effective tax rates than many taxpayers much further down the economic ladder.

So what’s stopping Congress from ending the tax preference for capital gains and simply taxing this income at the same rates as all other income? After all, President Ronald Reagan singed into law a tax reform that did exactly this. Is it such a radical proposal to bring back Reagan’s policy of taxing all income at the same rates?

One obstacle to ending the tax preference is misinformation about how revenue would be affected. The Wall Street Journal and other sources of anti-tax ideology claim that increasing tax rates on capital gains would not raise any revenue because investors would respond by selling fewer assets, meaning there would be fewer capital gains to tax.

Even the people who provide official revenue estimates for Congress — the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) — assume that this behavioral response exists, to a lesser but still significant degree.

Another non-partisan research institution that serves Congress, the Congressional Research Service (CRS), concluded in 2010 that JCT overestimates these behavioral responses and consequently underestimates how much revenue can be saved by allowing President Bush’s expansion of the capital gains preference to expire for the rich.

The recent report from CTJ on options to raise revenue explains why CRS is right and JCT is wrong. And why the Wall Street Journal is really, really wrong.

We don’t simply propose to allow Bush’s expansion of the capital gains preference to expire. We propose repealing the entire capital gains preference. We estimate that even if some behavioral responses do affect the revenue impact (meaning some investors do hold onto assets longer in response to the tax change) our proposal would still raise more than half a trillion dollars over a decade.

As our report explains, most of the ways in which investors respond to such a tax change are short-term responses. JCT seems to rely on research that confuses short-term responses for long-term responses. CRS points out that some studies from the last several years corrected for this mistake and found much smaller long-term behavioral responses.

See the CTJ report for more detail. As wonky and arcane as all this sounds, you can bet that the debate over capital gains tax changes and revenue will receive more attention as Congress starts talking about tax reform and about ways to get wealthy investors to pay their share.

How Obama Could Get Buffett and Romney to Pay at Least 30 Percent in Taxes

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During his State of the Union address, President Obama proposed that Congress enact his “Buffett Rule,” inspired by billionaire Warren Buffett’s complaint that he has a lower effective tax rate than his secretary.

President Obama said, “Tax reform should follow the Buffett rule: If you make more than $1 million a year, you should not pay less than 30 percent in taxes.”

This might mean that Congress would enact a new minimum tax of 30 percent for those with incomes over $1 million. But a simpler way to implement the Buffett Rule would be to simply end the tax preference for capital gains and stock dividends, which is the reason people like Mitt Romney and Warren Buffett can pay such low tax rates.

CTJ Report Explains Why Romney and Buffett Pay Such Low Tax Rates

A report from Citizens for Tax Justice explains how multi-millionaires like Romney and Buffett who live on investment income can pay a lower effective tax rate than working class people.

As the report explains, there are two reasons for this. First, the personal income tax has lower rates for two key types of investment income, capital gains and stock dividends. Second, investment income is exempt from payroll taxes (which will change to a small degree when the health care reform law takes effect).

The report compares two groups of taxpayers, those with income in the $60,000 to $65,000 range (around what Buffett’s famous secretary makes), and those with income exceeding $10 million.

For the first group, about 90 percent have very little investment income (less than a tenth of their income is from investments) and consequently have an average effective tax rate of 21.3 percent. For the second group (the Buffett and Romney group) about a third get the majority of their income from investments and consequently have an average effective tax rate of 15.2 percent.

This problem could be largely solved by doing what President Reagan did with the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which taxed all income at the same rates.


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UPDATE: Candidate Mitt Romney told MSNBC on December 22 that he does not intend to release his tax returns, even if he becomes his party's nominee. Watch CTJ's Rebecca Wilkins explain to ABC News Brian Ross what Romney's tax returns would show about his offshore investments and "carried interest" income. ABC video at this link.

End the Loophole Allowing Romney and other Fund Managers to have "Carried Interest" Taxed as "Capital Gains"

GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney's personal wealth, estimated at $190 to $250 million, has been in the news a lot lately, including the sweet retirement deal he negotiated with Bain Capital, the private equity firm he used to head. The stories confirm CTJ director Bob McIntyre's comments to Time Magazine that Romney's multi-million dollar income is likely taxed at the special low 15 percent rate imposed on dividends and long-term capital gains.

This makes Romney a good poster child for the "Buffett Rule," the principle that millionaires should not pay lower effective tax rates than middle-income people. One step towards implementing the Buffet Rule is to close the loophole that allows "carried interest" (the fund managers' share of the deal they get as compensation) to be taxed at the 15 percent rate even though it is not truly capital gain.

Much of Romney's income that is taxed at that super-low rate is actually compensation in the form of a "carried interest" in the private equity deals of Bain Capital. While CEO's, actors, and athletes with multi-million dollar salaries, bonuses, or stock options pay income tax rates of 35 percent (and payroll taxes) on their compensation, managers of private equity firms, hedge funds, and other investment funds pay only 15 percent income tax (and no payroll tax) on their share of the funds' profits that they get in exchange for their management services. Even some managers who benefit from the low rate admit it's not justified.

Since this loophole benefits those who make millions, hundreds of millions and sometimes over a billion dollars in a single year, it is truly a case of the richest one percent being subsidized by the other 99 percent who pay higher taxes or get less in services to pay for this tax break.

Various proposals have been offered to close this loophole and, in the last Congress, one of those measures passed the House (three times!) but didn't make it through the Senate. Republicans and many Democrats in the Senate claimed that the loophole somehow helps encourage investment in poor neighborhoods, helps minorities, small businesses and even cancer patients.

The truth is that it does not encourage any type of investment in any part of the country because it does not benefit the people putting up money for investment. It merely allows those who manage this money to pretend that they have invested their own cash and thus receive the capital gains tax break that is ostensibly in place to encourage investment.

Now that this loophole has the face of a very wealthy presidential candidate on it, perhaps the American public will start to notice and demand that it be eliminated. If you believe the tax code shouldn't favor the richest 1 percent over the 99 percent, here's a place to start: Close the Romney Loophole.

New Report from CTJ: How to Implement the Buffett Rule

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Some commentators have suggested that, because people with incomes exceeding $1 million, on average, pay higher effective tax rates than middle-income people, the problem targeted by President Obama’s “Buffett Rule” does not exist. As demonstrated in a new report from CTJ, the problem is not the effective tax rates of millionaires across the board but a particular class of millionaires whose income is mostly from investments. Investment income is taxed less than other types of income, allowing millionaire investors to pay a smaller percentage of their income in federal taxes than do many working-class people.

The report demonstrates that this problem is not isolated to rare cases. In fact, almost one third of taxpayers with income exceeding $10 million fall into this category (of taxpayers who rely on investment income for over half of their total income). Over 90 percent of taxpayers making between $60,000 and $65,000 (which includes Mr. Buffett’s famous secretary) rely on investment income for less than a tenth of their income — and pay a higher federal tax rate as a result.

The report also explains what Congress can do to implement the Buffett Rule and solve this problem. The first step, perhaps surprisingly, is to prevent repeal of health care reform, which includes a change in the Medicare tax that will take a limited first step in addressing this unfairness. Additional reforms are needed, which may include eliminating tax preferences for investment income or a surcharge on income exceeding $1 million as recently proposed by Senate Democrats.

Photo of Warren Buffett and Barack Obama via The White House Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

New CTJ Fact Sheet: Four Ways to End Wall Street's Free Ride

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If the following actions were taken, some of the inequity that is driving the Occupy Wall Street and other affiliated protests would be eliminated. Suggestions include making corporations pay their fair share in taxes, ending the tax break for corporations that shift jobs and profits overseas, implementing the "Buffett Rule," and imposing a tax on the "too-big-to-fail" banks...

Read the fact sheet.

Photo of Occupy Wall Street via Eye Wash Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

Advocates of Low Taxes Admit that Clinton Era Rate Hikes Did Not Hurt the Economy

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When House Speaker John Boehner said on Thursday that “tax increases destroy jobs” and are not a “viable option” for the Joint Select Committee tasked with reducing the budget deficit, he was probably unaware that a major business lobbyist and a high-profile conservative economist had admitted a day earlier that the last significant tax increases did not hurt the economy.

Bill Rys of the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) tried to explain to the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday his view that tax increases today would hurt the economy even though the economy thrived after the 1993 tax hikes enacted under President Clinton.

“In the 1990s,” he said, “we had a boom, we had Y2K, a lot of money being spent there, so we had much stronger economic winds pushing, pushing, which we don’t have right now.”

The obvious circularity of the argument seemed to go unnoticed by members of the committee. Rys said, in essence, that the tax increases of the 1990s did not prevent economic growth because we had economic growth in the 1990s.

Stephen Entin of the conservative Institute for Research on the Economics of Taxation, made a similar comment to explain why the Clinton tax increases did not cause the economic stagnation that he predicts would result from tax increases today.

“The Clinton marginal tax rate increases were fairly modest and we were coming out of a downturn. The growth was going to look good anyway.”

Most of the tax increases proposed today, which Entin believes will lead to a reduction in GDP, actually would just allow some rates to revert to the Clinton-era rates, so it’s surprising that he calls the Clinton tax increases “fairly modest.”

Even more surprising is his comment that the Clinton tax increases were not damaging because “we were coming out of a downturn.” No one asked the obvious follow-up question: If tax increases did not prevent a recovery in the 1990s, why would they prevent a recovery today?

Entin went on to say that what also allowed the economy to grow in the 1990s was the capital gains cut signed into law by President Clinton in 1997, which reduced the top capital gains rate to 20 percent.

“Please remember that he did sign a capital gains tax reduction and a lot of the growth in that decade was due to that reduction in the cost of capital. It dwarfed the effect of raising the marginal rates.”

The capital gains cut did not go into effect until 1998 so it’s interesting that Entin thinks that accounted for “a lot of the growth in that decade,” meaning the 1990s.

It’s also noteworthy that allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire would allow the top capital gains tax rate to simply revert to 20 percent, the rate that Clinton enacted and which Entin seems to think was conducive to growth.

A close look at the numbers demonstrates that there is no policy basis for allowing capital gains income to be taxed at lower rates than ordinary income. Advocates of tax cuts for investment income have for years argued that the revenue collected from taxes on capital gains will actually rise in response to a capital gains tax cut, but the data does not bear this out. For example, capital gains tax revenue was lower in the years following Bush’s 2003 capital gains tax cut than during the Clinton years. This revenue fluctuates with the economy and does not seem correlated with tax rates.

Of course, we could give Rys and Entin the benefit of the doubt and assume they really mean that economic growth would have been even higher during the 1990s if President Clinton had not raised tax rates. But even that argument is entirely unsupported by the data. A 2008 report from the Center for American Progress and the Economic Policy Institute compares the economic recoveries following the major tax changes enacted during the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. The report illustrates that the recovery under Clinton was far stronger, despite the tax increases that he enacted, than the recoveries during the other two administrations. 

Rys and Entin have both long advocated for making permanent all of the Bush tax cuts and enacting additional tax reductions. In 2010 CTJ wrote a response to arguments made by Rys and NFIB concerning the impacts of taxes on small businesses. In 2009 CTJ wrote a response to a report from Entin claiming that elimination of the estate tax would actually increase revenue.

Warren Buffett Is Right, the Wall Street Journal Is Wrong

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Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, called for higher taxes for millionaires in a widely-noted op-ed this week. As expected, the Wall Street Journal reacted with a variety of misleading counter-arguments. We conclude that:

  1. Buffett is correct that the tax breaks that benefit the wealthy investor class, like the capital gains and dividends preferences, are unfair.

  2. The Wall Street Journal’s arguments that these types of investment income are double-taxed are incorrect.

  3. Contrary to what the Journal claims, President Obama’s tax plan is in keeping with Buffett’s call for higher taxes on millionaires.

Billionaire Investor Is Right to Call for Higher Taxes for the Rich and End of Breaks for Investment Income

Buffett points out that middle-class Americans are being asked to “sacrifice” as Congress and the new twelve-member “super committee” search for ways to reduce the budget deficit, but millionaires have not been asked to sacrifice anything. He argues that the super committee should ask millionaires to pay at higher rates than they pay today and should also end or reduce special tax preferences for investment income, which makes up most of the income of millionaires.

Citizens for Tax Justice has long made the case that these tax preferences — the special low income tax rates for capital gains and stock dividends, should be repealed entirely.

CTJ offers the example of an heiress who owns so much stock and other assets that she does not have to work. She receives stock dividends, and when she sells assets (through her broker, of course) for more than their original purchase price, she enjoys the profit, which is called a capital gain. On these two types of income, she only pays a tax rate of 15 percent.

Now consider a receptionist who works at the brokerage firm that handles some of the heiress’s dealings. Let’s say this receptionist earns $50,000 a year. Unlike the heiress, his income comes in the form of wages, because, alas, he has to work for a living. His wages are taxed at progressive rates, and a portion of his income is actually taxed at 25 percent. (In other words, he faces a marginal rate of 25 percent, meaning each additional dollar he earns is taxed at that amount).

On top of that, he also pays the federal payroll tax of around 15 percent. (Technically he pays only half of the payroll tax and his employer pays the other half, but economists generally agree that it’s all ultimately borne by the employee.) So he pays taxes on his income at a higher rate than the heiress who lives off her wealth.

What make this situation even worse are the various loopholes that allow wealthy individuals to receive these tax breaks for income that is not really even capital gains or dividends. As Buffett explains, fund managers use the “carried interest” loophole to have their compensation treated as capital gains and taxed at the low 15 percent rate, while the “60/40 rule” benefits traders who “own stock index futures for 10 minutes and have 60 percent of their gain taxed at 15 percent, as if they’d been long-term investors.”

CTJ has found that if Congress simply repealed the preference for capital gains entirely, three fourths of the tax increase would be borne by the richest one percent of taxpayers. (See page 19 of this report for estimates.) The tax preference for dividends expires at the end of 2012 if Congress does not extend it.

The Myth of Double-Taxed Investment Income

The Wall Street Journal starts with the following complaint about Buffett’s argument that his capital gains and dividend income is insufficiently taxed:

“What he doesn't say is that much of his income was already taxed once as corporate income, which is assessed at a 35% rate (less deductions). The 15% levy on capital gains and dividends to individuals is thus a double tax that takes the overall tax rate on that corporate income closer to 45%.”

Anti-tax ideologues often claim that corporate profits are taxed twice, once under the corporate income tax and then again under the personal income tax when the shareholders receive them in the form of capital gains and dividends. There are several fatal flaws in this argument:

First, many corporate profits are not taxed, as GE, Verizon, Boeing, and many other corporations have demonstrated.

Second, two thirds of those dividends are actually paid to tax-exempt entities like pension funds or university endowments.

Third, a capital gain from selling a corporate stock is not necessarily a form of corporate profit. If stock value rises based on some expectation of a future increase in profits (which a drug company might enjoy after the FDA approves a new product, for example) that does not have anything to do with profits that the company has already received or paid taxes on.

In any case, the capital gains earned outside of tax-exempt plans are not taxed until shareholders sell their corporate stock at a profit, meaning those gains can be deferred indefinitely. Even when shareholders do report capital gains they often offset them with capital losses.

If one applies the logic of the “double-tax” argument more broadly, one would have to conclude that the wage and salary income of ordinary Americans is subject to several forms of taxes that wealthy investors don’t worry much about. For most Americans, income consists entirely of wages and all of it is subject to Social Security taxes and much or most of it is subject to the federal income tax. Then when people spend their income, a great deal of their purchases are subject to sales taxes.

Somehow the Wall Street Journal and its devotees only express concern over taxing income multiple times when wealthy investors are involved.

Ending Tax Cuts for Income Over $250,000 Actually Targets Millionaires

The Wall Street Journal also complains that, “Like Mr. Obama, Mr. Buffett speaks about raising taxes only on the rich. But somehow he ignores that the President's tax increase starts at $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for couples.”

But President Obama’s plan does target millionaires. A recent report from Citizens for Tax Justice explains that if enacted in 2011, 84 percent of the revenue savings from Obama’s income tax plan would come from people who make more than $1 million annually.

What is often not understood is that Obama’s plan would leave in place the Bush income tax reductions for the first $250,000 of adjusted gross income (AGI) for all married couples (and the first $200,000 for all unmarried taxpayers).

A married couple with adjusted gross income of $250,001 would pay higher taxes on at most one dollar, and face a tax hike of only 3 cents at most. But even that tiny tax hike would be extremely rare, since almost all couples at that income level itemize deductions. Typically, couples would have to make more than $295,000 before they lost any of their Bush income tax cuts.

Married taxpayers with incomes between $250,000 and $300,000 would lose just one percent of their Bush income tax cuts, on average, under President Obama’s plan.

The Wall Street Journal calls taxpayers with AGI in excess of $250,000/$200,000 “middle-class.” CTJ estimates that in 2013, when the Bush tax cuts are scheduled to expire, only 2.6 percent of taxpayers will have adjusted gross income in excess of the $250,000/$200,000 threshold.

This shows that President Obama is asking too few, rather than too many, Americans to pay higher taxes than they do today. 

Photos via The White House Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

Number of High Income Taxpayers Who Owe Nothing in Income Taxes Just Doubled

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The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) recently released new data showing that the number of individuals paying zero US income taxes on an adjusted gross income (AGI) of $200,000 or more almost doubled between 2007 and 2008.

In 2008, the number of returns declaring an AGI of over $200,000 represented about 3.1 percent of the total returns filed to the IRS. Out of these returns, as many as 18,783 had no U.S. income tax liability whatsoever in 2008; that’s nearly double the 10,465 who owed nothing in 2007.

Although this may represent only 0.43 percent of taxpayers reporting an AGI of over $200,000, it is the biggest percentage of non-payers in this category since the IRS began reporting the data in 1977.

The IRS report also revealed that the much publicized top marginal rate of 35 percent exists primarily on paper: according to the data, only 0.007 percent of ALL taxpayers pay an effective tax rate of 35 percent or higher. Put differently, nine times as many high income taxpayers pay zero in taxes than pay an effective, actual 35 percent tax rate.

Much of the explanation for the low effective rates for higher income individuals can be explained by the over $1 trillion in special tax deductions and treatment often referred to as tax expenditures. Examples of expenditures that rich taxpayers exploit would be: special treatment of capital gains, tax-exempt interest and the mortgage interest deduction.

Reducing or eliminating tax expenditures for businesses and investors would not only help reduce the deficit, it would also make the system more fair by reducing the number of higher income taxpayers who are able to avoid paying a substantial part or all of the taxes they owe.

The IRS data proves once again what Citizens for Tax Justice has said all along, our tax system is not as progressive as you think.

Some 44 House Democrats have reportedly written a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi calling for an extension of the Bush tax cuts on investment income for the richest two percent of Americans. These Democrats would preserve the historically low income tax rate of 15 percent for capital gains and stock dividends for the wealthiest taxpayers. This stance places them to the right of Ronald Reagan and illustrates a surprising lack of familiarity with history and economics.

Read the report. 

With Congress out of Washington for the August recess, more and more reporters and opinion makers are turning their attention to the enormous decisions on tax policy that await lawmakers when they return.

Anti-Tax Lawmakers Ignoring Public Opinion

The public supports President Obama's approach to the Bush tax cuts. A new CNN poll finds that only 31 percent of respondents think that Congress should extend the Bush tax cuts for the very rich as well as everyone else. This is in keeping with previous polls with similar results.

The main justification given by anti-tax lawmakers and activists for ignoring public opinion on this matter is that higher taxes on the rich, they claim, will hurt business investment and therefore hurt job creation. But a growing chorus of analysts agree that allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire for the rich will not harm the economy.

Anti-Tax Lawmakers Ignoring Rational, Informed Economic Analysis

For example, Allan Sloan, senior editor for Fortune and a columnist for the Washington Post, writes that "From the start of the income tax through 2003, dividends were taxed as regular income, and capital gains were treated far less favorably than now. Somehow both the republic and the financial markets survived. They'll survive higher rates, too."

Sloan provides a refreshingly calm approach to a subject that sends many people into hysterics: the impact of taxes on investment.

For example, he points out that the 2003 tax cut bill signed by President Bush "set dividend taxes for the high-bracket crowd at preferential rates for the first time and brought the rate on long-term capital gains to its lowest point since 1941, according to the tax publishing firm CCH. But that didn't exactly result in a bull market. According to Wilshire Associates, whose numbers I'm using throughout this column, the U.S. stock market rose only 14.6 percent from the May 5, 2003, tax cut through Obama's election on Nov. 4, 2008... That price gain, about 2.5 percent a year compounded, was less than half the historical rate."

In Sloan's view, the ups and downs of the stock market have little if anything to do with tax rates. He goes on to say, "Since Obama's election, the market has been very good. In fact, the market's 10.4 percent rise during Obama's first 100 days in office bested tax-cutting Ronald Reagan (a 4 percent gain for his first 100 days) and George W. Bush (a 2.3 percent loss for the equivalent period)."

Higher taxes on the very rich will not reduce their investment in stocks and bonds and also will not reduce their investments in their own businesses that they actively operate (as we have explained elsewhere).

When it comes to job creation, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office agrees that the other measures that have been discussed in Congress (like aid to state and local governments and extended unemployment benefits) are many times more effective than income tax cuts for the rich.

Minority of Senators Block Jobs and "Tax Extenders" Bill -- No Resolution in Sight

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President Obama wants to sign a jobs bill into law. The majority of members of the House and Senate want the same thing. So do the two million out-of-work Americans who will have lost their unemployment benefits by July because of Congress's inaction. Not to mention the millions of Americans who will see public services like education and public safety slashed because their states have to make up shortfalls in Medicaid funding. And then there are the mainstream economists who conclude that some deficit-spending on measures that pump money immediately into the economy and create jobs are entirely justified when unemployment is hovering around ten percent. In the face of all this, a minority of 42 Senators has managed to block legislative action.

Congress has fought a months-long battle over the bill, H.R. 4213, which includes an extension of emergency unemployment benefits and Medicaid funding to states, two spending measures that economist Mark Zandi has argued are the most effective way to stimulate the economy. These measures result in immediate spending, which leads to a boost in consumer demand, and the retention or creation of jobs to produce the goods and services needed to meet that demand.

The bill also includes a collection of provisions that extend short-term tax breaks for business that Congress enacts every year or so. Members of Congress and Hill staffers often call these the "tax extenders." CTJ has criticized the tax extenders for years. But, we support them this year because they are coupled with provisions that would offset their costs by clamping down on unfair tax loopholes. This is a major step forward for Congress. See CTJ's many reports on these loophole-closing provisions.

To their credit, Democratic leaders have tried every conceivable tactic to win over the so-called "moderates" who are blocking the bill.

For example, the House passed legislation three times to completely eliminate the infamous "carried interest" loophole that allows certain wealthy investment fund managers to treat their compensation as capital gains and thus enjoy a lower tax rate. This time, the House scaled back its provision to close this loophole, and Democratic leaders in the Senate scaled the provision back multiple times in their versions of the bill. Eliminating this loophole, which was proposed by the Obama administration, was estimated to raise about $24 billion over a decade. Democratic leaders in the Senate whittled that down to $13.6 billion. The provision is not so much a loophole-closer any more as a loophole-reducer.

Other compromises made to secure votes were even more alarming. The most recent proposal would have taken over $9 billion of unspent funds from the recovery act that are supposed to be used for food stamps to help offset the costs of this bill. This is preposterous. Food stamps are one of the most effective types of stimulus, along with unemployment insurance benefits and fiscal aid to states, according to Mark Zandi.

The country needs the Senate to pass, some way or another, a jobs bill. Sadly, Democrat Ben Nelson and the 41 Republican Senators have the ability, under the Senate's bizarre rules, to stop that from happening.

Defenders of Tax Loopholes Continue Battle Against Jobs and "Extenders" Bill

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As the Senate continues a seemingly endless debate over H.R. 4213, the jobs and "tax extenders" bill, business lobbyists, right-leaning economists and politicians have had more time to shape their arguments in defense of the tax loopholes that the bill would pare back.

To offset the costs of the tax breaks included in the bill, three types of loopholes would be restricted. They include the "carried interest" loophole that allows certain investment fund managers to treat their compensation as capital gains and thus enjoy a lower tax rate, the "John Edwards" loophole allowing people with "S corporations" to avoid payroll taxes, and abuses of the foreign tax credit by U.S.-based multinational corporations.

The debate over the "carried interest" loophole has received the most attention, and CTJ has responded to some of the outlandish arguments made in its defense.

More recently, Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME) has voiced her opposition to the provisions regarding "S corporations," and filed an amendment to strip them from the bill. A recent report from CTJ explains that this amendment should be rejected because the loophole in question allows people to underestimate the extent to which their income is wages, meaning they avoid payroll taxes.

The report also explains that the main effect of the provisions in H.R. 4213 regarding S corporations would probably be on Medicare taxes. The new health care reform law actually applies Medicare taxes to most non-retirement income, but there is a bizarre exception left for certain non-wage income from S corporations. H.R. 4213 would not even eliminate this exception entirely but would merely target those taxpayers who are most obviously manipulating the tax rules to avoid paying the Medicare tax. This seems like the least Congress could do.

The provisions in H.R. 4213 that prevent abuses of the foreign tax credit have also received more attention lately. A new report from CTJ responds to criticisms of these provisions made by the Peterson Institute's Gary Hufbauer and Theodore Moran.

The purpose of the foreign tax credit is to ensure that American individuals and corporations are not double-taxed on income that they earn in other countries. Hufbauer and Moran seem to acknowledge — and endorse — the common practice of corporations using credits in excess of what is necessary to avoid double-taxation. In these instances, corporations are really using the credit to lower their U.S. taxes on their U.S. income. Or, put another way, it means the credit is being used to subsidize foreign countries by helping U.S. corporations pay their foreign taxes.

Surely, everyone should agree that this is not the purpose of the foreign tax credit. But without the reforms included in H.R. 4213, these practices will continue, and we will have missed an important opportunity to make our tax system fairer and more rational.

Senate Continues Battle Over Bill on Jobs, "Extenders," and Loophole-Closers

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Federal benefits for the long-term unemployed have been expired for over a week and the Senate still has not approved a bill (H.R. 4213) that would extend these and other vital measures. The bill also includes badly needed Medicaid funding for states and other provisions that would stimulate the economy. (See CTJ's recent reports on this legislation).

Call your Senators and urge them to vote for H.R. 4213.

Use this toll-free number provided by AFSCME to make your call: 888-340-6521

Part of the consternation among some Senators is that the spending provisions in the bill would add (modestly) to the deficit. Economists have explained that short-term deficit-financed spending measures can be used to effectively boost consumer demand, and thus job creation, during a recession, without adding to the long-term budget crisis.

Many of the Senators who have supported tax cuts that created long-term deficits (the kind of deficits that actually do lead away from fiscal sustainability) now oppose this bill out of their concern about "fiscal responsibility." Other Senators are more genuine in their concern about deficits but have wildly misplaced fears about a bill that has little, if anything, to do with our long-term budget situation.

A number of Senators are still concerned about the tax provisions in the bill. It includes an assortment of small tax cuts (mostly for business), which are often called the "tax extenders" by members of Congress and their staffs. While these tax breaks probably accomplish very little, the good news is that their cost would be offset with provisions that close unfair tax loopholes.

It's the Senators' devotion to maintaining these loopholes that is another factor slowing down progress on this bill.

Battle Continues Over "Carried Interest" Loophole for Investment Fund Managers

The most controversial tax provision would clamp down on the "carried interest" loophole, which allows investment fund managers to treat their earned income as capital gains and thus benefit from a much lower income tax rate. Over the past few weeks, some honest investment fund managers have spoken up to tell Congress that their loophole really is unjustified, and it was also reported that two Republican Senators favor closing the loophole.

The draft of the bill proposed by Senate Majority Leader Reid already watered down this reform a great deal (compared to the version that passed the House) by allowing the lower capital gains rate to continue to apply to a larger portion of carried interest. As a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains, the last thing Congress should do is weaken this provision any further.

Senators Defend the "John Edwards" Loophole

Another controversial reform would close the "John Edwards" loophole for "S corporations." Payroll taxes apply to wage income, but not other types of income. So, some people want to disguise their wage income as non-wage investment income to avoid payroll taxes. People who own S corporations have to determine (and tell the IRS) how much of their income is wage income and how much of it is other income, and of course there is a huge incentive to underestimate the amount that is wage income.

John Edwards famously played this trick by saying that his name was an asset and this asset, rather than his work, was generating most of the income of his S corporation.

Some Senators have expressed concern about the effect this reform would have on small businesses. But none have explained coherently why we should allow this type of scheme to continue.



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Call your Senators and tell them to close the "carried interest" loophole allowing multi-millionaires running investment funds to pay taxes at lower rates than their secretaries.

Call the Capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121 and ask to be connected to the Senators for your state.

Public interest advocates, faith-based groups, labor unions and others continued their push this week to prod Congress to enact a jobs bill that extends unemployment insurance benefits, COBRA health benefits for unemployed individuals, Medicaid funding for states and other vital measures that would boost the economy. The House approved its bill (the latest version of H.R. 4213) only after severely weakening it by dropping COBRA and Medicaid funding, and the Senate left for the Memorial Day recess without acting on it.

Most of the spending provisions in the bill are considered emergency spending, and do not have to be paid for under Congress's budget procedures. The bill also includes provisions extending several temporary tax breaks (mostly for business), and these provisions are often called the "tax extenders." The costs of the tax extenders are offset with provisions that close unfair tax loopholes.

These loophole-closing provisions are among several factors that have slowed down progress on the bill. Unfortunately, some Senators seem reluctant to close even the most abusive tax loopholes.

Citizens for Tax Justice released a group of reports over the past few weeks about the tax loophole-closing provisions in the bill.

The American Jobs and Closing Tax Loopholes Act of 2010 (a.k.a. the “Extenders” Bill) Would Boost the Economy and Improve Tax Fairness
This report explains the three general types of loophole-closers in H.R. 4213, including provisions to end abuses of foreign tax credits, provisions to clamp down on the "carried interest" loophole, and provisions to end the "John Edwards" loophole for business people with "S corporations."

Senators Defend “Carried Interest” Loophole for Investment Fund Managers in the Name of the Poor, Minorities, Small Businesses and Cancer Patients!
This report debunks the outrageous arguments that investment fund managers have made in defense of the "carried interest" loophole.

Key Provisions in H.R. 4213 Would Prevent Abuse of Foreign Tax Credits
This report explains the provisions of H.R. 4213 that would make the U.S. international tax system fairer and more rational and cut down on corporations shifting profits offshore.

Some investment fund managers admit that there is no justification for the carried interest loophole, which allows a part of their compensation (their "carried interest") to be taxed at the low capital gains rate.

On May 18, talk show host Charlie Rose asked Jonathan Nelson, CEO of the private equity firm Providence Equity Partners, if he could "live with it" if Congress taxed his carried interest at ordinary rates instead of the low capital gains rate. Nelson responded, "We could live with it if they changed it overnight. Absolutely."

On May 29, Fred Wilson, a venture capitalist of a firm called Union Square Capital, wrote that his carried interest should be taxed as ordinary income because it's compensation for work rather than gain on an investment. "It is not fair or equitable to other recipients of fee income to give a special tax break to certain kinds of fees and not to others," he explains, before explaining other policy reasons for ending the loophole.

Bill Stanfill, founder of a Colorado-based venture capital firm called TrailHead Ventures, testified before the Ways and Means Committee in favor of closing the loophole back in 2007. He recently asked Senators in a letter (and in several meetings and phone calls), "Why should the 'bonus' (carried interest) earned by v.c.'s be taxed more favorably than the bonus of any other working person — whether teacher, salesperson, athlete or corporate manager?  Life can be unfair, but it does not follow that the government should institutionalize unfairness. Instead, it should level the playing field as much as possible."

Interestingly, even two Republican Senators have indicated that they have no use for the carried interest loophole. FDL News reports that Republican Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine have indicated that they have no objection to closing the loophole.

New "Compromise" Floated by Chamber of Commerce Would Gut the Carried Interest Provision

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Investment managers are now lobbying furiously to get what they are calling the "enterprise value" tax dropped from the carried interest loophole closer. This provision in the bill would treat gain from the sale of a carried interest (the partnership interest owned by the investment manager) as ordinary income instead of capital gains.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce threw its considerable weight behind the effort to strip this provision from the bill in a letter last week to members of the House. The Chamber's letter is very misleading — it sounds as though the provision will impact all sales of partnership interests, but, in fact, it affects only the manager's interest. A Wall Street Journal editorial is even more misleading, implying that the income of the investment manager will be taxed twice. This is a complete falsehood. Any partnership income that the manager gets increases his tax basis in his partnership interest which will reduce the gain realized on its ultimate sale.
This provision must stay in the bill. Otherwise, investment managers can easily avoid the ordinary rates by selling their "carried" partnership interest and paying capital gains taxes on that income. If they reinvest the sales proceeds back into the investment partnership, they have converted their carried interest into a qualified capital interest and will get capital gains treatment on all subsequent partnership income.

Call your Senators and tell them to stop putting multi-millionaire investment fund managers ahead of struggling families.

Call the Capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121 and ask to be connected to the Senators for your state.

Democrats in Congress are rushing to pass the jobs and "extenders" bill before the end of the week. This bill includes extensions of badly needed unemployment insurance and COBRA health benefits, TANF jobs and emergency funding, Medicaid funding for states and several other important measures. These are the type of measures that many economists, like Mark Zandi of Moody's, believe will help stimulate the economy and speed up the recovery. The bill may be passed in the House this week.

Even if the bill passes the House, there may be a serious roadblock in the Senate. Some Democrats in the Senate may oppose or slow down this bill because it includes a provision to clamp down on a loophole allowing investment fund managers to earn hundreds of millions of dollars each year and yet pay taxes at a lower rate than their secretaries.

In other words, some Senate Democrats (and all or most Republicans) would allow unemployment and health benefits to expire for out-of-work families, and would allow jobs funding and Medicaid funding to expire, all to protect a loophole that allows multi-millionaires to pay taxes at lower rates than middle-income people. With every (or nearly every) Republican Senator guaranteed to vote against the bill, the Democrats are struggling to remain unified.

(See CTJ's recent report about the tax loophole-closers in the bill.)

If there was ever a time to call your Senators and give them hell, this is it.

The bill in question is H.R. 4213, the jobs and "extenders" bill. The loophole in question is the infamous "carried interest" loophole that allows wealthy fund managers to pretend that some of the compensation they receive in return for managing other people's money is capital gains. (See CTJ's recent report about carried interest.)

Compensation for work is almost always taxed at ordinary rates as high as 35 percent and subject to payroll taxes of around 15 percent. But this loophole allows the investment fund managers (who can earn hundreds of millions of dollars a year) to pretend that some of their compensation is capital gains, which is subject to an income tax rate of just 15 percent and is not subject to payroll taxes at all.

After the Bush tax cuts expire at the end of this year, the top tax rate for "ordinary" income (meaning income subject to ordinary income tax rates) will go from 35 percent to 39.6 percent and the top rate for capital gains will go from 15 percent to 20 percent. That means that if this loophole is not closed, investment fund managers will be able to cut their income taxes roughly in half from what they should be paying, and will still avoid payroll taxes.

Democratic leaders have already compromised on this issue. Instead of treating all carried interest as "ordinary" income (i.e. not capital gains) as previous House-passed bills would do, the current proposal would treat 75 percent of it as ordinary income.

Incredibly, this has not been enough for some Senators who want to further weaken the provision.

Keep in mind that this has nothing to do with changing the taxation of anything that can honestly be called investment income. The idea behind the tax preference for capital gains is that it encourages people to invest. This is nonsense for reasons we'll get into on another day, but it is the accepted wisdom among many lawmakers who don't have much time to think about economics. But even if we accept this premise, it does nothing to explain why this tax preference should be enjoyed by people who are not investing their own money but merely managing other people's money. That's what the carried interest loophole currently allows.

Five Senators (Scott Brown, Jeanne Shaheen, Bob Casey, Patty Murray, Mark Warner) signed a letter to Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus asking to amend the provision to allow venture capital fund managers to continue to enjoy the loophole.

The basic idea is that venture capital firms create innovation and jobs, unlike some of the other types of investment managers (like hedge fund and buyout fund managers) and this type of investment needs to be encouraged. The letter does not explain why this calls for tax breaks allowing the people who manage the money (not the people putting up their own money) to pay taxes at lower rates than middle-income people.

It has also been rumored that the venture capital industry has put a great deal of effort into persuading the Senators from California, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein to resist the provision.

Senators Maria Cantwell, John Kerry and Robert Menendez have also voiced concerns. Kerry and Menendez have called for some sort of "compromise" so that investment fund managers do not have to entirely pay at ordinary rates on their carried interest. This could involve taxing a smaller portion of carried interest as ordinary income (taxing less than 75 percent of it as ordinary income).

Another idea being floated would allow for investment managers to continue to enjoy a loophole to the extent that the investments they manage are held for a certain number of years. The idea seems to be to reward "patient" capital rather than those trying to make a quick buck. But of course, this really has nothing to do with rewarding patient capital since it would benefit the people managing the money, not the people actually investing it. Even more alarmingly, it could actually delay certain investments if fund managers are encouraged to hold onto assets for a longer period of time than would otherwise make sense just to enjoy the tax break. Certain deals would be delayed, meaning this provision could actually slow down economic development and job creation.

Staffers for several other Democratic Senators also expressed concerns about the carried interest provision, which seems to mean that ALL Senators need to hear from their constituents on this issue.

No one has explained why making the people who manage investments pay taxes at the same rate as everyone else will discourage investment. The argument that is occasionally trotted out by the industry is that the people managing the money and investments will have to charge more for their services in response to a tax increase. This is simply not true. If they could charge more, they would already being doing that right now. And it's worth remembering that investment fund managers did not decide to charge less when their tax rates were reduced (in 1997 and 2003 when the capital gains rates were cut) so it's illogical to believe that they will charge more in response to a tax increase.

The only explanation for the Senate's resistance that readily comes to mind involves the campaign contributions that investment fund managers make. Senate Democrats are, frankly, in danger of creating an extremely unflattering impression of themselves as beholden to their wealthiest contributors.

Many who have been following this bill are extremely concerned that the Senate may not pass the bill this week, or may pass the bill after amending it to reduce the impact of the carried interest provision. An amended bill could be disastrous in that it might make it impossible for the two chambers to come to agreement and send a bill to the President before the Memorial Day recess.

CALL YOUR MEMBERS OF CONGRESS: Urge Them to Pass the Jobs and Extenders Bill (H.R. 4213)

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A new report from Citizens for Tax Justice explains that the new jobs and "extenders" bill released by the chairmen of the House and Senate tax-writing committees on Thursday contains several long-overdue provisions to close tax loopholes. The bill (H.R. 4213) takes aims at corporations that shift profits offshore, investment fund managers who use the "carried interest" loophole to pay lower tax rates than their secretaries, and business people who use the "John Edwards" loophole to avoid their Social Security and Medicare taxes.

Many people are more familiar with the important spending provisions in the bill geared to speed up the economic recovery, including an extension of unemployment insurance and COBRA health care benefits for the unemployed, Medicaid funding for states, TANF jobs and emergency funding for states and other measures that will help boost the economy.

The tax loophole-closing provisions are used to offset the costs of extending several small tax breaks. The spending portion is mostly considered emergency spending that does not have to be paid for under Congress's budget procedures because it is temporary and necessary to prevent the economy from drifting back towards recession. (The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains why the spending portions of the bill are economically necessary and fiscally sound.)

Call your lawmakers now and urge them to vote in favor of H.R. 4213. Visit the website for Jobs for America Now, which makes it extremely easy for you to make a toll-free call to your lawmakers to support this bill.

New CTJ Report: Will the "Carried Interest" Loophole Finally Be Closed?

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Congress may be ready to close the "carried interest" loophole, which allows wealthy investment fund managers to pay taxes at lower rates than middle-income people.

As a new report from CTJ explains, carried interest is the share of profits that investors pay to compensate certain people for managing their money. The investment managers who receive carried interest have been allowed to pretend that this compensation represents profits on money they have invested themselves, thus entitling them to pay taxes at the low capital gains rate of 15 percent rather than the regular rate of 35 percent that other highly compensated workers pay.

Three times the House has voted to close the “carried interest” loophole and three times the Senate has failed to pass the provision. The latest version of the loophole closer was included in the “tax extenders,” a bill that extends expiring tax breaks, which was approved by the House on December 9. The Senate left the carried interest provision out of its version of the extenders bill, which they passed on March 10, and instead offset the costs of the tax breaks with a provision closing the “black liquor” loophole. However, that provision wound up in the final healthcare package, leaving the Senate extenders bill without enough revenue to cover the costs.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus indicated last week that “carried interest will probably be part of the offsets.” That released a flurry of lobbying activity by taxpayers trying to hold onto their favored status.

Read the report.

How Health Care Was Reformed (and Financed Partly with a Progressive Tax)

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The House and Senate yesterday approved the final piece of the historic health care reform that will extend health insurance to 32 million Americans currently uninsured and prevent health insurers from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions and capping benefits when people are sick. The legislation will also make it easier for small businesses to provide affordable health coverage without locking workers into employer-provided plans that they will lose if they switch jobs.

The bill passed by both chambers yesterday was the smaller "corrections" bill that made several fixes to the larger bill that the House approved on Sunday and that the Senate approved on Christmas Eve. The President signed the larger bill into law on Tuesday.

The corrections bill increased the number of Americans receiving subsidies to make health care affordable and removed some "sweetheart" deals that individual Senators demanded in the larger bill and later came to regret. The corrections bill also scaled back an excise tax on high-cost employer-provided health insurance while adding an expansion of the Medicare tax.

The debate over how to finance health care reform went through several tumultuous stages over the past year. From the start, lawmakers wanted to finance the reform with savings from within the health care system as much as possible, but it was clear that other revenue sources would be needed.This was one of the key sticking points for many lawmakers.

Progressive Action on Revenue for Health Care Reform

In May of last year, CTJ first presented some ideas about how Congress could finance health care reform in a progressive way. All changes made to the tax code in the previous eight years under President George W. Bush had disproportionately benefited the wealthiest Americans. The bailout for the financial industry seemed to reward Wall Street for its mismanagement, at the expense of ordinary taxpayers. It was time for the wealthy investor class to pay their fair share to help fix America's broken health care system.

We worked for several months with a broad coalition of policy advocates, think-tanks, faith-based groups and labor unions to bring progressive financing options to the attention of members of Congress. State-based groups released reports with state-specific figures while national organizations educated lawmakers about progressive financing options and dispelled the myths that were manufactured to block any increase in revenues.

One of the progressive revenue measures that we championed would reform the Medicare tax so that it is more progressive and no longer exempts investment income.

CTJ worked to significantly modify another revenue measure, the excise tax on high-cost employer-provided health insurance plans. We pointed out that this tax, in the form originally proposed, would affect more middle-income taxpayers than most people realized and would actually make the tax system less progressive overall.

Eventually, the excise tax on high-cost employer-provided plans was scaled back to a reasonable level and Congress adopted the proposal to reform the Medicare tax. But the path to this success was not an easy one.

Attempts at Bipartisanship

It's difficult to remember this now, but a year ago lawmakers and their aides, particularly in the Senate, seemed to honestly believe that a bipartisan agreement on health care reform was possible if enough compromises were made. Democrats were negotiating with Republicans. And not just the Republicans that are often considered "moderates" like Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee. Democrats even negotiated with Mike Enzi (R-WY), an unabashed conservative and the ranking Republican on another relevant committee.

It did not work. After being heavily involved in health care negotiations, Senator Grassley abruptly changed his tune. He held up a chart on the Senate floor one day with a children's book drawing of a dragon to illustrate the "Debt and Deficit Dragon," and then held up another chart illustrating a character he called "Sur Taxalot." He then rambled on about how "the surtax [included in the House health bill] is a large, heavy, painful weapon, and lethal to America's job engine, the goose that laid the golden egg," and said that Sur Taxalot "does nothing to slow the dragon's exponential growth."

Then Senator Enzi, during a committee markup, offered countless amendments that essentially contradicted the most fundamental goals of reform.

Meanwhile, the grassroots base of the conservative movement made it clear that they could not be appeased by anything other than a continuation of the status quo. Right-wing organizations such as "FreedomWorks," "Americans for Prosperity," and "Conservatives for Patients Rights," organized a campaign to send hecklers to town hall meetings held by any member of Congress who might possibly vote in favor of any health care reform bill.

The anti-reform protesters, whose main goal seemed to be shutting down any public discussion on the topic of reform, even admitted in some cases that they were not constituents of the lawmakers they were heckling. In other cases, those town hall protesters who claimed to be merely “just a mom from a few blocks away” and “not affiliated with any political party” turned out to be Republican party officials.

Congress Moves Forward and then Stops

By the fall, the battle lines were clearly drawn. On September 9, the President made a special address to Congress and told lawmakers that his health care objectives could be accomplished for less money than was spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and less money than was lost due to the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

A day earlier, CTJ had released figures showing that the Bush tax cuts actually cost two and a half times as much as the House Democrats' health care plan. The figures showed that the President was right. The Bush tax cuts for the richest 5 percent alone cost more than the $900 billion price tag that President Obama put on health reform.

In early November, the House approved a health reform bill that included a surcharge on adjusted gross income (AGI) above $1 million for married couples and AGI over $500,000 for unmarried taxpayers. Only one Republican in the House voted for the bill.

On Christmas Eve, the Senate passed its own health care bill, and this one included the version of the excise tax on high-cost employer-provided health plans that CTJ found problematic. In addition to having less progressive revenue provisions, the Senate bill was also less bold in terms of how it reformed health care. For example, unlike the House bill, the Senate bill did not have a "public option," a government-sponsored health plan that could compete with private insurers.

The bizarre rules of the Senate usually require 60 out of 100 votes to pass legislation. Since Democrats had exactly 60 seats in the Senate, every member of the caucus had to vote for the bill for it to pass.

The House and Senate seemed to be on their way, with the help of the White House, to working out the differences between the two bills. The public option was, unfortunately, lost. The high-income surcharge in the House-passed bill was also out. But the excise tax on employer-provided health plans would be scaled back to a reasonable level and the Medicare tax reform would be included.

Then in January the Democrats lost their 60th vote in the Senate when Scott Brown won the Massachusetts Senate seat formerly held by the late Ted Kennedy.

Pro-Reform Lawmakers Stop Panicking and Start Making History

After a period of hysteria among the members of Congress who supported health care reform, a strategy was devised to finish the job even though the Senate now had only 59 members who supported reform.

First the House would pass the Senate bill, which the President would sign into law. To complete this step, the House passed the Senate bill on Sunday while anti-reform protesters swarmed the Capitol in an attempt to intimidate and harass lawmakers. The President signed this bill into law on Tuesday.

Then Congress needed to pass the various amendments that would make the health reform look like the compromise that the House and Senate were moving towards before the Senate lost its 60th vote for reform. These amendments would all be included in a second bill that the Senate would pass through the "budget reconciliation" process. Reconciliation is simply a procedure to allow the Senate to pass legislation that has some impact on the federal budget picture with a simple majority of votes.

Despite their howls of protest against this procedure, the Republicans had actually used it to enact the Bush tax cuts (which actually worsened the fiscal outlook by running up huge deficits) and several other measures.

The "corrections" bill was passed by the Senate on Thursday using the budget reconciliation process and then was passed by the House later that evening. After this long, tortured journey, the dream that has eluded progressive Americans for a century is now a reality.

Dispatch from Anti-Tax La La Land: Health Care Edition

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The Institute for Research on the Economics of Taxation (IRET) is at it again. If you've ever wondered where the Wall Street Journal's editorial board gets its most half-baked ideas about taxes and economics, the IRET is your answer. Last year, they released a remarkable report concluding that repealing the estate tax would actually increase federal revenue. (See CTJ's response.) 
Now the IRET claims that the Medicare tax reform included in the health care compromise before Congress would decrease GDP by 1.3 percent and actually reduce federal revenue by $5 billion a year. 
The problem, according to IRET, is that taxes on investment income reduce incentives to invest, which results in less economic activity, fewer jobs and lower incomes. They believe that business profits and wages would fall so much that the resulting loss of tax revenue would more than offset the gain resulting from the increase in the Medicare tax. This is the flip side of the coin for "supply-side" theorists who believe that tax cuts (particularly tax cuts for investment income) will result in increased revenue.
Proponents of this analysis call it "dynamic" revenue scoring. Sadly for IRET, no one believes it. Even George W. Bush's Treasury concluded that the gross increase in revenue resulting from the economic impact of tax cuts is tiny and comes nowhere near the level needed to actually offset the cost of tax cuts (much less result in a net revenue gain). Economic advisers to conservative Republican presidents agree. For example, Martin Feldstein, Chairmen of Council of Economic Advisers under President Reagan, and Glenn Hubbard and Greg Mankiw, both CEA chairmen during the George W. Bush administration, all have been quoted as saying that tax cuts do not raise revenue. One would assume that they believe the reverse, that tax increases do not reduce revenue.
Some more moderate supply-siders (if such a thing is possible) concede that many tax increases do raise revenue and many tax cuts do reduce revenue, but they argue that taxes on investment income are something different. Certain types of investment income like capital gains and dividends, are more responsive to tax rates, they argue. 
But there is no evidence to back this up. Proponents of this argument often point to the upticks in revenue from income taxes on capital gains income and claim that they are caused by the latest increase in the tax preference for capital gains. As we've pointed out before, capital gains tax revenue was higher at the end of the Clinton years, when the top rate for capital gains was higher, than any time since. The truth is that investment income simply bobs up and down in response to whatever is happening in the broader economy, without much discernable impact from tax policy.  
There are other problems with the IRET's claims. In some places they are just factually wrong. One claim IRET makes is that the new Medicare tax on investment income "would be triggered by earning even a single dollar above the thresholds, after which all of the taxpayers’ passive income would be immediately subject to the tax. This creates a huge tax rate spike or 'cliff' at the thresholds."
Wrong. The memo and revenue estimates that the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) distributed by lawmakers on February 24 made clear that the President's version of the Medicare tax on investment income would be phased in over a range of income exceeding $200,000/$250,000, while the text of the revised version says it would apply only to unearned income to the extent that AGI exceeds the $200,000/$250,000 threshold. In other words, if a single person has AGI of $201,000 and $51,000 of this income is investment income, the 3.8 percent Medicare tax would only apply to $1,000 of investment income (not the entire $51,000). 
In other words, IRET either talks about a tax policy that no one has proposed (such as a "cliff" for people with one dollar of income over the $200,000/$250,000 threshold) or retreats into a theoretical and fantastical world (where increasing taxes causes revenue to plummet and cutting taxes causes revenue to rise).
Of course, if we could raise revenue to pay for health care reform by actually cutting taxes, surely Democrats in Congress would have passed health care reform long ago.

The President's Medicare Tax Reform: The Facts Are Not in Dispute

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Tax policy is an area in which two people can look at the exact same set of facts and come to exactly opposite conclusions. Take the American Enterprise Institute's latest assault on the Medicare tax reform that President Obama has included in his health care reform plan.

The President has adopted an idea that CTJ has championed for months, to change the Medicare tax so that it no longer exempts investment income and to make the tax more progressive. The President would raise the Medicare tax rate for earnings exceeding $200,000 for unmarried taxpayers and $250,000 for married taxpayers, and he would apply the existing 2.9 percent Medicare tax to investment income for those with adjusted gross income (AGI) above $200,000/$250,000.

CTJ's recent report on this proposal found that only 2.3 percent of taxpayers would be affected by this tax in 2014. (The tax would go into effect in 2013).

But that's no comfort to Alan D. Viard and Amy Roden, who argue against this tax reform in AEI's online journal. They write:

"Of course, the high-income cutoffs mean that the new Medicare tax wouldn’t apply to most American savers. But the savers hit by the tax are precisely the ones who provide the largest volume of funds to finance investment in our economy. In 2007, tax returns from households with incomes greater than $200,000 reported 47 percent of all interest income, 60 percent of all dividends, and a staggering 84 percent of all net capital gains. We can’t afford to discourage this group from investing in America’s future."

So they fully agree with us that the sort of income they don't want Congress to tax predominately flows to the rich.

As a judge would say, the facts in this case are not in dispute.

What is in dispute is whether we have to avoid taxing the types of income that mostly flow to the wealthy in order to keep our economy running smoothly. AEI says yes, we need to have preferential rates in some taxes for these types of incomes (like the capital gains and dividends break in the income tax) and wholesale exemptions in other taxes (like the Medicare tax).   

We disagree. We have seen no evidence that the economy functions better when taxes on investment income are slashed or eliminated. Even when it comes to capital gains, which is where libertarians think they have their strongest case, there is no evidence that tax cuts have enhanced economic efficiency. Capital gains income certainly has fluctuated as a result of the ups and downs in the overall economy, and libertarians often attribute the upswings to tax cuts for capital gains. Sadly for them, capital gains realizations have, throughout the Bush years and today, been lower than they were at the end of the Clinton years, when the top rate for capital gains was higher.

Taxing investment income the same way that income from work is taxed is only fair. The President's Medicare tax reform is a step in the right direction. It would end the current exemption in the Medicare tax for investment income to help finance a health care reform that really will help our economy to function more efficiently.

Senate Passes "Tax Extenders" (aka Business Tax Breaks) as Part of Jobs Bill

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The Senate approved a bill Wednesday that includes an extension of unemployment benefits and COBRA health benefits for unemployed workers through the end of the year, and a short-term extension of Medicaid funding for states and a Medicare "doc fix" (maintaining payments to doctors under Medicare).

The cost of this spending was not offset since it is considered emergency spending to stimulate the economy. But the costs of other provisions in the bill — extensions for $30 billion worth of business tax breaks often called the "tax extenders" — were offset. The biggest revenue-raiser used to offset this costs is a provision to close the "black liquor" loophole. This loophole allows paper-making companies using a carbon-rich by-product as fuel to use a tax credit that is supposed to encourage the use of environmentally-friendly alternative fuels.

But the "black liquor" provision may be used instead in the final health care reform bill. The health care reform bill approved by the House on November 7 of last year (H.R. 3962) included this revenue provision, and the President's recent proposal to bridge the differences between the House and Senate health bills also includes it.

There is another perfectly good revenue-raising provision that the Senate can use to offset most of the cost of the "tax extenders." The version of the tax extenders bill approved by the House on December 9 was supported by CTJ and several other progressive organizations because it included several good provisions, including one to close the infamous "carried interest" loophole. U.S. PIRG and CTJ issued a joint press release yesterday stating their disappointment that the Senate has not done the same.

The carried interest loophole allows billionaires managing hedge funds and buyout funds to pay taxes at a lower rate than middle-income workers. The House has passed legislation three separate times to close the carried interest loophole (including the recent House-passed extenders bill), and both of President Obama’s budget plans have proposed to close it. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) was quoted in Congress Daily recently saying that closing the carried interest loophole is "on the table."

Until this loophole is closed, the compensation of these fund managers will continue to be taxed at a rate of 15 percent, the preferential rate for capital gains that is supposed to benefit people who invest their own money, not the people who manage it.

New IRS Data Show that Income of the Richest 400 Grows While their Effective Tax Rate Declines

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New data from the IRS show that in 2007 the richest 400 taxpayers in America increased their incomes by 31 percent over the previous year, increased their share of total income in America, and paid an even lower effective tax rate than ever before.

Writing for Tax Analysts, David Cay Johnston finds that the average income of the richest 400 grew from $263.3 million in 2006 to $344.8 million in 2007. Meanwhile, their effective income tax rate fell from 17.17 percent in 2006 to 16.62 percent in 2007.

As usual, a major cause of the low effective tax rates is the preferential rate for capital gains and stock dividends, which are taxed at a top rate of 15 percent instead of the top rate of 35 percent that applies to other income for the very rich. Capital gains made up 66.3 percent of income for the top 400 in 2007, up from 62.8 percent in 2006.

The data seem to highlight the need to allow the Bush tax cuts, which cut the top rate for capital gains and stock dividends to 15 percent, to expire as scheduled at the end of 2010.

The report released last week by Citizens for Tax Justice on the President's budget argued that Congress should at least allow the Bush tax cuts to expire for the rich (which Obama defines as married couples with incomes above $250,000 and unmarrieds with income above $200,000) and should enact at least as many revenue-raisers as the President proposes.

A new report from Citizens for Tax Justice explores the tax proposals included in the federal budget outline that President Obama submitted to Congress on February 1. Like the budget he submitted last year, it is a vast improvement over the policies of the Bush years and continues to outline a progressive reform agenda.

But, also similar to last year, the President’s budget could be greatly improved with more aggressive policies to raise revenue. Over the coming decade, the President proposes to cut taxes by $3.5 trillion. We include in this figure the cost of extending most of the Bush tax cuts and relief from the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) as well as additional tax cuts that President Obama proposes.

His budget would offset a portion of this cost with provisions that would raise $760 billion over a decade by limiting the benefits of itemized deductions for the wealthy, reforming the U.S. international tax system and enacting other reforms and loophole-closing measures.

The report concludes that the federal government should collect at least as much revenue as the President proposes in order to avoid larger budget deficits. There are two bare minimum requirements for Congress to achieve this. First, Congress must not extend any more of the Bush tax cuts than President Obama proposes to extend. Second, Congress must raise at least as much revenue as President Obama has proposed ($760 billion over ten years) through loophole-closers and new revenue measures.

Read the full report.


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.

House Approves Bill to Close "Carried Interest" Loophole, Crack Down on Offshore Tax Cheats

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On December 9, the U.S. House of Representatives 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. Congress would receive these reports at the same time it is trying to decide which of the Bush tax cuts should be extended, what to do with the President's tax reform proposals, and how to balance the federal budget. In this context, it is hoped that the reports will prod some lawmakers to take a more critical look at corporate tax breaks before extending 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 for the points made in the letter.)

Prospects in the Senate are unclear. One problem is the full agenda the Senate has with health care reform.

Another 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. This is, frankly, an all-purpose excuse for legislators who want to avoid closing even the most unfair and outrageous loopholes. They know full well that comprehensive tax reform might not happen for decades. (The last one was in 1986, after all).

The carried interest loophole allows managers of private equity funds (a euphemistic term for buyout funds) to pay taxes at a lower rate than their secretaries. It involves using the tax subsidy (the special top rate of 15% for capital gains) that was intended for people who invest their own money. Whether or not the capital gains tax subsidy is justified is another matter. (We believe it's not.) But private equity fund managers are not investing their own money anyway. They're being paid to manage other people's money, but by calling their compensation "carried interest" they're able to pay income taxes at the low, capital gains rate.

The notion that Congress can tackle tax schemes this blatantly unfair only in the context of comprehensive tax reform (which apparently only comes once every 25 years, if even that often) is ridiculous. Advocates of tax fairness need to call upon the Senate to approve H.R. 4213 as it was written and approved by the House of Representatives. 

Citizens for Tax Justice and several other national organizations have come together to support passage of (H.R. 4213), which fairly and responsibly offsets the cost of the "tax extenders." The House of Representatives plans to vote on this bill as early as December 9.

Read the letter in support of H.R. 4213.

To be sure, many of these organizations question the efficacy and fairness of some of the "tax extenders," which are provisions that Congress enacts periodically to extend, for a year or so, various temporary tax breaks. But we nonetheless agree that the core revenue-raising provisions included in this legislation are important reforms to our tax system. We  support this bill for the following reasons:

H.R. 4213 would reverse Congress's tradition of increasing the budget deficit every year by extending "temporary" tax breaks without paying for them.

Unlike many previous "tax extenders" bills, this legislation includes revenue-raising provisions that would offset the costs of extending these tax breaks. Enacting corporate tax breaks (which make up the bulk of the "tax extenders") without paying for them contributes to our federal budget deficits and our national debt, which is borne by all Americans. The revenue-raising provisions in this bill prevent an increase in the deficit while also making the tax code fairer and more efficient.

H.R. 4213 would finally close the loophole for what private equity fund managers call "carried interest." (See CTJ's previous analyses of the carried interest loophole.)

A middle-income person typically pays income taxes as high as 25 percent plus payroll taxes. Private equity fund managers can receive millions of dollars (or even billions of dollars, during boom times) in compensation for their work, but by calling this income "carried interest," they pay only income taxes at a 15 percent rate.

The "carried interest" label essentially allows these fund managers to pretend that this income is a return on capital investments (and thus eligible for the exception in the income tax that subjects capital gains to an income tax rate of no more than 15 percent). This pretense clearly contradicts the will of Congress in creating the subsidy for capital gains, which was meant to reward those who invested their own money, not those who are simply being paid to manage other people's money.

H.R. 4213 also includes a proposal introduced by Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel to prevent wealthy Americans from cheating on their U.S. taxes by hiding their income in offshore tax havens. (See CTJ's analysis of tax haven legislation.)

While this proposal is not as strong as we would prefer, it would be an important step forward to ensure that all Americans pay their fair share in taxes. Middle-income Americans typically have few opportunities to hide their income from the IRS. But wealthy Americans have access to lawyers and accountants who help them hide their income in offshore tax havens. Tax havens are countries that have a very low income tax (or no income tax) and laws that prevent their banks from cooperating with IRS enforcement efforts.

While the vast majority of taxpayers at all income levels do the right thing and pay their fair share, a minority of wealthy Americans are engaging in these activities that are both illegal and unfair. The Baucus-Rangel proposal would create strong incentives for foreign banks to provide information that would help the IRS identify tax cheats without creating any significant burden on the banks or their honest customers.

H.R. 4213 requires that the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) conduct studies evaluating the "tax extenders" before the end of next year, when Congress is likely to act on them again. (See CTJ's report calling on Congress and the administration to conduct regular reviews of tax expenditures.)

Providing a special corporate tax break through the tax code has the exact same effect as providing a subsidy through direct spending. Unfortunately, lawmakers have made almost no attempt to evaluate or even think critically about the effectiveness of corporate tax breaks before extending them each year. This contrasts significantly with lawmakers' attitudes towards the discretionary spending that they grapple with annually.

JCT's reports of the effectiveness of tax breaks will at least provide Congress with a basis to judge whether or not these tax provisions are worth their costs. This is a common sense reform that is long overdue.

CTJ's Suggested Principles for Tax Reform

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President Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board (PERAB) recently requested ideas from the public about how the federal tax system could be reformed. The comments submitted by Citizens for Tax Justice yesterday begin "We want a fairer, simpler tax code that raises enough money to pay for public services and promotes economic prosperity for all Americans. Our current tax system falls far short of achieving these goals."

The comments note that:

- On the revenue side, even after the current recession ends, we can expect to be funding about a quarter of all non-Social Security spending with borrowed money (including amounts borrowed from the Social Security trust fund).

- As for simplicity and fairness, well, both parties have been guilty of using the tax code to promote a vast array of favored activities. One result is that taxpayers with similar incomes can be treated wildly differently depending on how they make their money or how they spend it.

- In fact, our current tax system allows many of our biggest and most profitable corporations to pay little or no tax.

The rest of the comments lay out principles for solving these problems.

Read CTJ's Suggested Principles for Tax Reform (2 pages)

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) and other groups representing the real estate industry have been a case study in special interest politics for some time. A quick glance a the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation's tax expenditure report reveals that tax breaks related to housing cost over $100 billion a year, but that's not enough to satisfy NAR and its followers.

The Battles Over the "Carried Interest" Loophole

Two years ago, the Real Estate Roundtable (of which NAR is a member) hired Douglas Holtz-Eakin to defend the "carried interest" loophole, which basically allows those investing other people's money to pretend that they put up their own money, thus entitling them to pay taxes at the low capital gains rate of 15 percent rather than the regular rate of 35 percent that other highly compensated workers pay. (CTJ released a fact sheet debunking Holtz-Eakin's arguments.) The Obama administration continues to support closing the carried interest loophole.

The Homebuyer's Credit

In the last year of the Bush administration, the real estate industry managed to get Congress to adopt, as part of the economic stimulus law enacted in 2008, a $7,500 homebuyer credit that taxpayers would have to pay back to the IRS. This, year, they persuaded Congress to upgrade that to a $8,000 homebuyer credit that does not have to be paid back and that is available to taxpayers under certain income limits if they purchase a home before the end of November of this year.  

The homebuyer tax credit was estimated at the time of enactment to have a cost of $6.6 billion, but is actually on track to cost more than twice that.

Since the economic crisis was caused by inflated home prices, it is not at all clear how subsidies provided through the tax code to boost home prices could possibly be good policy. 

Ted Gayer at the Brookings Institution has written that:

"The tax credit is very poorly targeted. Approximately 1.9 million buyers are expected to receive the credit, but more than 85 percent of these would have bought a home without the credit. This suggests a price tag of about $15 billion – which is twice what Congress intended – for approximately 350,000 additional home sales. At $43,000 per new home sale, this is a very expensive subsidy."

Perhaps most alarming is the possibility that the homebuyer credit could become another "tax extender," the term used by Congressional staff and lobbyists to describe tax breaks that are ostensibly in effect for only a year or two, but which everyone believes Congress will extend again and again. NAR is, of course, pushing for Congress to extend the homebuyer credit.

Health Care

Perhaps the worst example of special interests fighting to block the common good is the real estate industry's interference in Congress's attempts to reform health care. Early this year, the Obama administration proposed to limit the value of itemized deductions for wealthy taxpayers to 28 percent as a way to raise revenue that would partially fund health care reform. CTJ found that this would affect only the richest 1.3 percent of taxpayers and would merely reduce some of the unfairness that occurs when Congress subsidizes certain activities (like home ownership and charitable giving) through the tax code. NAR, naturally, would have none of it, since this proposal would curtail the savings received by high-income taxpayers when they claim the itemized deduction for home mortgage interest.

In fact, NAR recently has come out against a much more scaled back version of this proposal, which would merely cap itemized deductions at 35 percent.

Currently, the top income tax rate is 35 percent, so the richest Americans can save, at most, 35 cents for each dollar of itemized deductions they claim. But the Bush tax cuts, which lowered the top income tax rate from 39.6 percent to 35 percent, will expire at the end of 2010. That means that in 2011, under current law, each dollar of itemized deductions claimed by a very wealthy person could result in almost 40 cents of savings. Capping itemized deductions at 35 percent would therefore merely freeze in place their current value after the Bush tax cuts expire and rates go back up.

NAR recently issued a statement saying that it opposes even this scaled back proposal to limit itemized deductions and that it "rejects in the strongest possible terms any proposal that would limit the deductions for mortgage interest and real property taxes." NAR is unabashed in its defense of subsidies provided through the tax code for families in the top income tax bracket.

Do the Realtors Oppose the Bush Tax Cuts?

But if the realtors believe that the very rich should receive 39.6 cents for each dollar of itemized deductions they claim, that seems to imply that they think the top income tax rate should revert back to the pre-Bush level of 39.6 percent. Their position seems to be that it is unacceptable for the richest Americans to only save 35 cents for each dollar they claim in itemized deductions. The only way for that number to go back up from 35 to 39.6 is for President Bush's reduction in the top rate to expire. Surprisingly, NAR and CTJ seem to have one position in common, albeit for vastly different reasons.

Will the Senate Repeat the House's Mistakes on Climate Change Legislation?

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Environmentalists have their eyes on the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Reid has given several committees a September 28 deadline to mark up climate change legislation. The legislation is expected to include a "cap-and-trade" program, in which companies would need to have allowances to emit greenhouse gases, and the amount of allowances would be capped at a level that would decline for several years.

The House of Representatives passed its version (H.R. 2454, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009) in June. It's clear that America needs to act to reduce the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. But it's equally clear that the Senate could do better than the House did in addressing this problem.

President Obama proposed in his first budget that Congress create a cap-and-trade system in which all of the emissions allowances are auctioned off to companies rather than given away for free. The overall amount of allowances would be capped and reduced each year. The revenue raised could be largely used, the President reasoned, for a refundable tax credit that would offset the impact of the resulting higher energy costs for low- and middle-income families.

The House cap-and-trade bill only auctions off 15 percent of the allowances, and the revenue raised would help offset the costs for the poorest fifth of families. So 85 percent of the allowances would not be auctioned off, but neither would they be doled out for free to corporations (not all of them anyway). There would be strings attached for some. For example, local utility companies would initially get almost half of the allowances, but in return they would be required to pass savings onto consumers. Unfortunately, there are many reasons why this is an inefficient way to protect consumers.

The Senate might repeat the House's mistakes. One of the Senate committees with partial jurisdiction over the legislation will be the Finance Committee, whose chairman (Max Baucus of Montana) recently told Congressional Quarterly that the Senate would probably not allocate the emissions allowances all that differently than the House bill does.

The increased costs that middle-income families would see if the House bill becomes law are not gigantic ($235 a year according to the Congressional Budget Office). But Congress needs to decide whether the increased prices paid for energy should go largely towards corporate profits (which seems to be the likely result of the House-passed bill) or be redirected back to consumers.

The Senate could accomplish the latter by auctioning off more than 15 percent of the allowances and using the revenue to offset the increased energy costs more effectively for both low- and middle-income families. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out that refundable tax credits, combined with more use of EBT cards, would be an effective way to deliver the necessary energy refund to the vast majority of low- and middle-income families.

The Senate might not just repeat the House's mistakes. They might even add a few of their own. Baucus told the Daily Tax Report that “Congress could use the money from auctioning allowances to cut taxes: by cutting marginal rates, by cutting capital gains rates, by cutting payroll taxes. Or we could do all of the above.”

To take just one of these ridiculous ideas, the preferential rates that already exist for capital gains and dividends already cost us around $100 billion a year and the vast majority of the benefits go to the richest one percent of taxpayers. Let's hope Senator Baucus sees that relief for consumers is more important than showering more special breaks on wealthy investors.

Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ) has joined forces with a broad coalition of organizations called Rebuild and Renew America Now (RRAN) to promote a simple message: Congress has a whole lot of options to raise revenue to pay for health care reform and other initiatives without unfairly impacting low- or middle-income people and without harming the economy.

These progressive revenue options include both the tax changes included in President Obama's fiscal year 2010 budget proposals as well as additional options formulated in a recent report by CTJ and endorsed by Health Care for America Now (HCAN) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). (See CTJ's report on the President's tax proposals and CTJ's report on additional revenue options to fund health care reform.)

RRAN is a coalition that engaged in education, communications and lobbying efforts in support of the President's budget and other progressive initiatives earlier this year and has mobilized advocates and activists all over the country. Many of the organizations involved are usually focused on particular public services or progressive reforms, but have realized that all public services and reforms are in danger if Congress can't bring itself to raise the revenue needed to pay for them.

RRAN has invited organizations (both national organizations and state organizations) to sign onto its two-page statement of principles for this new campaign for progressive revenue options. Signing does not commit an organization to do anything (although all are also encouraged to become active in RRAN's activities) but simply states support for efforts to pay for initiatives in progressive ways. Anyone who is authorized to sign on behalf of an organization can visit the website of the Coalition on Human Needs (CHN) or simply click here.

The statement lists three broad principles to guide Congress's efforts to find revenue:

1. Adequacy. The federal tax system should raise sufficient revenue over time to meet our shared priorities and invest in our common future.

2. Fairness. Tax preferences that overwhelmingly benefit the wealthy and corporations should be eliminated, and individuals and businesses should contribute their fair share of taxes, based on ability to pay.

3. Responsibility. We should not saddle future generations with unsustainable levels of debt.

The statement also lists examples of the kinds of tax policies RRAN supports:

  • raising revenues from upper-income households;
  • assessing a significant tax on large estates;
  • reducing abuses among corporations and individuals who shelter income in offshore tax evasion or avoidance schemes;
  • closing financial industry, oil and gas, and other inefficient corporate loopholes; and
  • reducing tax preferences for unearned as opposed to earned income.

For more information in the coming days, visit RRAN's website:

New CTJ Report on President Obama's Revenue Proposals

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On May 11, the Treasury Department released its "Green Book" containing new details of the tax changes included in the President's fiscal year 2010 budget proposal. In addition to extending the Bush tax cuts for all but the richest Americans and making permanent many of the tax cuts in the recently enacted economic recovery act, the President would also make many changes that would raise revenue by closing loopholes, blocking tax avoidance schemes and making the tax code more progressive.

A new report from Citizens for Tax Justice examines and describes the significant revenue-raising provisions that are sure to be debated fiercely in the months to come.

Read the report.

This week, Citizens for Tax Justice updated its recent report on the tax proposals in the President's budget outline to include estimates of the proposals' impacts on different income groups in every state. The new state figures examine the proposed cuts compared to current law and also compared to the baseline that the Obama administration uses in presenting its budget figures. The figures show that, whichever baseline is used, the vast majority of families in every state will get a significant tax break.

Read the report. (State-by-state figures are in the final appendix.

New Report from Citizens for Tax Justice: President Obama's First Budget Proposal

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On February 26, President Obama sent to Congress the blueprint for what could be one of the most progressive federal budgets in generations. The budget calls for national health care reform, expanded education funding, a program to reduce global warming, and several improvements in human needs programs. As a new report from Citizens for Tax Justice explains, it would make the tax code considerably more progressive, and close a number of egregious tax loopholes.

There is, however, a flaw in the budget proposal: It does not raise enough revenue to pay for public services. Instead, its net effect is to cut taxes dramatically.

Opponents of the President have attempted to argue that the budget proposal calls for tax increases that could sink the economy, but this complaint is plainly unfounded. President Bush and his allies in Congress were adamant that lower taxes would lead to an explosion of prosperity, and they enacted tax cuts in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2006. Some allies of the former President argue that Congress is now insufficiently focused on tax cuts, but this view seems bizarre and incredible given the sad economic facts all around us.

Indeed, one might reasonably conclude that we could safely allow most of the Bush tax cuts to expire at the end of 2010, as they are scheduled to under current law, without any concern about how this will impact the economy. But President Obama actually proposes to keep most of the Bush tax cuts. Obama's largest proposed tax cut is to re-enact 80 percent of the Bush tax cuts that are scheduled to expire at the end of 2010. Most of this reflects re-enacting the Bush income tax cuts for married couples with incomes below $250,000 and others with incomes below $200,000 (or put another way, for about 98 percent of taxpayers), and permanently reducing the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT). In addition, Obama proposes to re-enact close to half of the Bush estate tax cut.

On top of re-enacting most of the Bush tax cuts, the Obama budget includes a number of additional tax cuts for families and individuals. (These would be extensions of temporary tax cuts included in the recently passed stimulus law.) It also proposes some questionable business tax cuts.

Partially offsetting its tax-cut proposals, the Obama budget proposes some significant revenue-raising provisions. These include a cap-and-trade program to reduce carbon emissions, a limit on the benefits of itemized deductions for high-bracket taxpayers, and a number of corporate and high-income loophole-closing measures.

Read the Report

On February 13, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and seven co-sponsors introduced a bill that would impose a tax on securities transactions. The 0.25 percent tax would be imposed on the value of the securities traded. Rep. DeFazio proposes the measure as a way to pay for the various Wall Street bailouts.

This proposal would, in theory, raise revenue from the folks who benefitted from the bailouts. But there's another proposal we like better. Congress should simply eliminate the loophole in the income tax for long-term capital gains and corporate stock dividends, which subjects these forms of income to a top rate of just 15 percent.

People who earn wages must pay income taxes at progressive rates as high as 35 percent, and the first $102,000 a person earns in a year is, in addition, subject to payroll taxes of around 15 percent. So allowing people who live off their investments to pay a tax rate of only 15 percent is grossly unfair. As Warren Buffet recently pointed out, he pays a lower tax rate that his secretary, thanks largely to the loophole in the federal income tax for capital gains and dividends.

And it truly is the wealthy who primarily benefit. A report issued by CTJ in May of last year found that 70 percent of the benefits of President Bush's tax cut for capital gains and dividends goes to the richest one percent of taxpayers. The report also cited IRS data showing that in 2005, this loophole cost the Treasury $91.7 billion.

So getting back to Congressman DeFazio's proposal, we find several advantages of a higher capital gain rate over a securities transaction tax:

  • Taxing capital gains at a higher rate would tax only those transactions that resulted in a gain, while a securities transaction tax would be imposed on every trade, whether or not there was a profit.
  • A higher capital gains tax rate would be imposed on all capital gain transactions, not just those that arise from exchange-traded securities transactions. (Many derivative transactions are not traded on an exchange.)
  • Taxing capital gains at ordinary tax rates would make the tax system much more fair and progressive. Taxpayers in the lower rate brackets would pay a lower rate on their capital gains while taxpayers in the higher brackets would pay a higher rate.
  • Taxing capital gains at the same rate as ordinary income would eliminate the many, many tax avoidance schemes that taxpayers use to convert ordinary income to capital gains.
  • Taxpayers would make decisions based on economics -- not on the tax treatment of different investments -- eliminating a lot of market distortion.

Unfortunately, many lawmakers feel a strong urge to expand the most egregious loophole in the federal income tax rather than repeal it. On the same day that the DeFazio proposal was introduced, Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) introduced a bill to raise the capital loss limitation from the current $3,000 per year to $10,000 per year. This would provide another tax break for the wealthy. Generally, taxpayers can use capital losses to offset capital gains, and if they have net capital losses, they can deduct $3,000 of that against ordinary income. The rest is carried over to future years. If there were no limit, investors could choose to sell only assets that have a loss and offset other types of income, even though they might have unrealized gains in other capital assets. An October, 2008 CTJ report analyzed a similar proposal made by Senator John McCain (R-AZ) during his presidential campaign and criticized the idea for the same reason.

Isn't It Time to Reassess the Bush Tax Cuts for Investment Income?

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It was bound to happen. In response to the crisis on Wall Street, some members of the Republican Study Committee in the House of Representatives proposed a familiar solution: tax cuts. In particular, they proposed a suspension of capital gains taxes for both individuals and corporations for two years, after which capital gains would be reduced from their current levels because "assets would be indexed permanently for any inflationary gains." The article from BNA that landed in our inboxes actually said that they proposed this measure "as a way to coax capital back into sluggish lending markets and offset the cost of a proposed government bailout of the U.S. financial system."

If suspending a tax altogether (that is, lowering its rate to zero) can increase revenue and offset the cost of anything, then supply-side economics may have risen above the laws of the known universe entirely into some new, unknown realm beyond our comprehension.

It would be comforting to believe that this thinking is confined to some small fringe group of lawmakers. Actually, the Republican presidential nominee is not far behind. John McCain recently proposed to temporarily slash the capital gains tax rate to a super-low 7.5 percent. (See CTJ's recent paper, "McCain's Proposal to Expand the Loophole for Capital Gains Would Be Unfair and Counterproductive.")

This seems like the ideal time to ask what exactly supply-side tax cuts for investment have accomplished. Bush expanded the tax subsidy for capital gains (lowering the special capital gains tax rate from 20 percent to 15 percent) and created a new one for dividends (which was taxed like any other income but is now taxed at a top rate of 15 percent). We do not know that the Bush tax cuts for investment actually contributed to the financial collapse. But the notion that they contributed to excessively risky investments and helped fuel the calamity is at least as reasonable as the notion that they helped grow the economy, considering our current economic situation.

There are several conceptual reasons why these tax subsidies for investment are simply not sensible policy. For one, it offends most people's idea of basic fairness that someone who earns $42,000 from work can be taxed at a higher rate than someone who receives the same amount of income by collecting dividend checks. Why someone like Paris Hilton, who probably lives off her wealth, should be taxed at a lower rate than someone who actually works has never been adequately explained by the proponents of these tax cuts.

But in addition to that, the subsidy leads to all sorts of shifty tax dodging behavior that makes the economy less efficient, since money is invested in certain activities or properties merely to get a tax break, rather than because it's the most efficient use of capital.

Supply-siders sometimes have their very best luck in convincing the naive to adopt their views when they're talking about the capital gains tax. Part of the reason for this is that capital gains tax revenues fluctuate wildly with economic cycles, rocketing upwards during the good times and crashing during recessions. The charts illustrating capital gains tax revenue have lines that look like rollercoasters, and supply-siders often confuse the unwary into believing that some cut in the capital gains tax rate caused one of the upswings.

For example, as a paper published earlier this year by CTJ explains, capital gains tax revenue crashed during the recession in 2001. This revenue of course climbed back up from that low point, as we would expect. But because this natural upswing coincided with Bush's cut in the capital gains rate from 20 percent to 15 percent, supply-siders (like the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal) argue that the Bush tax cut caused this revenue to increase. What they leave out of the story is the fact that capital gains tax revenue was higher at the end of the Clinton years, when the capital gains rate was higher.

The argument over revenues can seem like an arcane debate full of jargon and charts and tables, but the fairness problem posed by the loopholes for investment income is readily apparent. These loopholes direct a huge amount of money to the rich. Earlier this year, CTJ released a report finding that 70 percent of the benefits of the capital gains and dividends loopholes will go to the richest 1 percent of taxpayers in 2009. Of course recent events on Wall Street will lower the capital gains reported in 2009, but there is no particular reason why the distribution of the benefits from these loopholes would be any different. Unlike the supply-siders, we will resist the temptation to say that the coming change in capital gains tax revenue is a direct result of the Bush administration's policies. (Although the case could be made...)

House Approves Bill to Pay for AMT Relief, Close Carried Interest Loophole

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The U.S. House of Representatives voted mostly along party-lines Wednesday to approve H.R. 6275, which would extend relief from the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) for another year and offset the costs mostly by closing tax loopholes.

As explained in last week's report from Citizens for Tax Justice, it is only fair that the cost of AMT relief be offset by closing loopholes that benefit the wealthiest Americans. One of these is the much-hated loophole for "carried interest," a form of compensation paid to private equity fund managers in return for investing other people's money. Most of us who earn an income from work are subject to federal income taxes at progressive rates, starting at 10 percent and going up to 35 percent for the very wealthiest. Private equity fund managers are at the top of this wealthy group, but nevertheless pay only 15 percent -- the special low capital gains tax rate -- on their carried interest. Closing this loophole makes up about half of the $61 billion needed to offset the cost of extending AMT relief for a year.

Republican leaders in the Senate will try to block consideration of this bill, arguing that any legislation extending a tax provision that is currently in effect should not be paid for. The absurd implication of this argument is that Congress should not have to pay for tax cuts if they start out as one-year or two-year provisions and are then extended past their original expiration date. It's also a demand for an increase in the budget deficit, which seems to no longer be a concern of conservative lawmakers.

The House Ways and Means Committee approved a bill (H.R. 6275) this week that would temporarily prevent the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) from expanding its reach to families who are mostly well-off, but not as wealthy as those the tax was originally intended to target. Almost all lawmakers agree that this step should be taken. But President Bush and Republican leaders oppose the Ways and Means bill because it offsets the cost of AMT relief with revenue-raising provisions in order to avoid an increase in the budget deficit.

The AMT was created to ensure that wealthy Americans pay at least some federal income taxes no matter how skillful they are at finding loopholes. It is reasonable that Congress wants to prevent it from affecting more families, but as argued in a new report from CTJ, there is no reason why the deficit should be increased to provide tax relief for those who are relatively well-off. The Ways and Means bill would offset the cost of AMT relief mainly by closing unwarranted tax loopholes, which will in turn make the tax code fairer and more economically efficient.

The House Ways and Means Committee approved a bill (H.R. 6049) on Thursday that includes extensions of several temporary tax cuts targeting various interests (commonly referred to as "extenders") as well renewable energy tax incentives and a few new tax cuts. Unlike similar bills passed during the Bush years, this extenders package includes revenue-raising provisions to offset the costs.

Republicans Demand Increase in the Budget Deficit

Ranking member Jim McCrery (R-LA) and other Republicans on the committee argued that Congress should not have to offset the costs of extending tax cuts because these extensions amount to a continuation of current policy. But the tax cuts in question were never enacted as permanent tax cuts, so Congress never budgeted for the costs that they would present in future years if they were permanent (meaning the revenue "baseline" used by the Congressional Budget Office assumes that these tax breaks will expire). McCrery's logic implies that Congress should be able to enact any tax cut for a single year and then at the end of that year make it permanent without offsetting the costs.

The Tax Cuts in the Bill

The renewable energy tax incentives cost a total of $17 billion and the largest is the 3-year extension of the "section 45 tax credit" for the production of energy from renewable resources, at a cost of $7 billion.

The new tax cuts cost a total of $10 billion, and include a change in the AMT related to the treatment of stock options, a deduction for property taxes for non-itemizers which was also included in the housing legislation the House passed last week, and an expansion in eligibility for the Child Tax Credit for low-income people. The change in the credit is the biggest of this group, with a cost of about $3 billion.

First enacted during the Clinton administration, the Child Tax Credit was significantly expanded as part of the Bush tax cuts. It is now worth up to $1,000 for each child under age 17. But many low-income families do not benefit at all from the child credit, and many others get only partial credits. That's because the credit is unavailable to families with earnings below $12,050 (indexed for inflation), and the credit is limited to 15 percent of earnings above that amount. In other words, a working family making less than $12,050 this year is too poor to get any child credit. The bill would lower the child credit's earnings threshold from the current $11,750 to $8,500 and would no longer increase the threshold every year for inflation. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out that 13 million children would be helped by this provision and describes some of the characteristics of the families likely to be affected.

The one-year "extenders" cost a total of $27 billion and include extensions of several tax breaks that have been criticized in the past by Citizens for Tax Justice, like the research and development credit, the deduction for state and local sales taxes, and the above-the-line deduction for tuition.

Despite these provisions, this bill is an important step forward because it improves the Child Tax Credit and maintains lawmakers' commitment to the pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) rules that require new tax cuts and entitlement spending to be paid for.

Revenue-Raising Provisions to Comply with PAYGO

The revenue-raising provisions are borrowed from a bill that the House approved last year. One would delay a law that has not even gone into effect yet and which will make it easier for multinational corporations to take deductions for interest payments that should really be considered expenses of foreign operations and therefore not deductible. Implementation of the new "worldwide allocation" rules would be delayed until 2019, raising about $30 billion over ten years.

The second revenue-raising provision would crack down on the use of offshore schemes that private equity fund managers use to avoid taxes on deferred compensation.

The tax code allows employees to defer paying taxes on money that they or their employers put into "qualified" retirement savings plans, such as 401(k)'s, until they take money out during retirement. But contributions to such "qualified" plans are limited, to no more than $30,000 a year depending on the type of plan. That's the sort of plan most Americans can get... if they're lucky.

Highly-paid corporate executives, however, often get to go a giant step farther. They can set up "non-qualified" deferred compensation plans, which are not taxable to the executives until they take the money out, but which are not deductible by companies until then either. Currently, there is no limit on how much money executives can defer taxes on through these plans. But the corporations who pay them also have to defer the deduction they take for whatever they pay into the deferred compensation plan, so in theory there is only a small loss to the Treasury (and to the rest of the taxpayers).

But private equity fund managers have managed to create an approach to deferred compensation that goes even farther, and does impose a substantial cost on the rest of the taxpayers. Private equity fund managers often have an "unqualified" plan into which is paid an unlimited amount of deferred compensation. But they arrange the payments to be technically made by an offshore corporation in a tax haven country that has no corporate tax, or a very low one, so the loss of the deduction is not an issue. Of course, this is done with paper transactions. No one is actually working in the tax haven country, so this is really just a scheme to increase the amount of deferred compensation that can be paid to these already highly-compensated fund managers without being taxed right away.

The bill approved by the Ways and Means Committee Thursday would close this loophole, raising about $24 billion over ten years.

These provisions are good policy based on fairness grounds alone. The need to raise revenue to prevent an increase in the budget deficit only makes them more important.

It is unclear whether these offsets will be included in the Senate version of the bill, which the Senate Finance Committee will likely mark up after the Memorial Day recess.

Online Video Explains Why We Must Eliminate the Tax Loopholes Used by Private Equity

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An online video linked with a petition to the presidential candidates has generated nearly 30,000 signatures in support of closing the loopholes used by the buyout fund managers ("private equity" fund managers) to generate billions without paying their fair share of taxes. The video is part of the "War on Greed" film series that Robert Greenwald has created and which takes a comical yet serious look at the greed of private equity titans like Henry Kravis of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts (KKR). The most recent video explains the tax loopholes used by the industry, including the loophole for "carried interest," which is basically compensation paid to fund managers for managing other people's money. Although the video does not use the term "carried interest," it does explain that these super-wealthy fund managers are allowed to pay taxes on their compensation at the special low 15 percent rate reserved for capital gains.

Many were disappointed last year when the Senate failed to approve a House-passed bill that would have closed the carried interest loophole and clamp down on the fund managers' use of offshore tax avoidance schemes. Hundreds of organizations had publicly endorsed the effort to close the carried interest loophole.

For its part, the private equity industry/buyout industry seems to know that the loopholes it enjoys still infuriate some members of Congress and the public. KKR just hired Ken Mehlman, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, to run its public affairs department, demonstrating real concern that Congress may move to check the unfair advantages the industry enjoys.

Charlie Gibson Repeats Misinformation at Democratic Presidential Debate

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ABC news anchor Charlie Gibson perpetuated a myth about taxes at the Democratic presidential debate on Wednesday night. Gibson said of the capital gains tax that "in each instance, when the rate dropped, revenues from the tax increased. The government took in more money. And in the 1980s, when the tax was increased to 28 percent, the revenues went down." He asked Senator Obama, who has signaled that he would raise the capital gains tax from its current level of 15 percent to 28 percent, why he would bother doing this if it would actually reduce revenues.

There is just one problem. What Charlie Gibson said is not true. Revenues from capital gains do not rise when the tax is cut. They rise when the economy is booming and they collapse when the economy tanks. In fact, revenue from capital gains taxes is currently well below the peak it reached during the Clinton era ¢Â€Â” when taxes were higher.

A small group of ideologues associated with "supply-side economics" believes that tax cuts can actually increase revenues. While this notion is rejected by most mainstream economists and sounds ludicrous to the average person, members of the media and Congress seem unusually susceptible to being hoodwinked into believing it. Their general idea is that if we lower capital gains taxes, there will be more capital gains realizations (meaning more people sell their property that has gone up in value) because the tax on that profit has been cut, and this will lead to revenue increasing overall.

Even if there are more realizations as a result of a capital gains tax cut, the resulting revenue will be nowhere near enough to make the tax cut budget-neutral, much less revenue-enhancing.

The ups and downs in revenue collected by the capital gains tax seem to have more to do with what's happening in the broader economy than with tax policy. In the early and mid-1990s, when the top capital gains tax rate was 28 percent, the revenues collected by the tax shot through the roof. They continued to climb after the rate was lowered to 20 percent in 1997, but this looks more like the continuation of a preexisting trend linked to economic prosperity rather than a response to the change in the rate. Then in 2001 and 2002 the revenues collected by this tax fell precipitously. This was not following any change in tax policy at all, but clearly linked to the bursting of the bubble and its ramifications on the stock market.

Capital gains tax revenue did increase after 2003, when the rate was cut again to 15 percent, but we would expect the revenue to rise from the low point of the recession, regardless of what changes were made to the tax code. More importantly, the revenue obviously has not reached the high level of the Clinton years when the rate was higher. Measured as a percentage of GDP, the capital gains tax will probably collect only half as much revenue this year as it did in 2000, when the rate was higher.

Can support for the supply-siders' argument be found if one looks further back in time? No. Charlie Gibson seems to think that capital gains tax revenue fell when the rate was raised as part of the 1986 Tax Reform Act that was signed by President Reagan. The reality is that capital gains realizations surged in anticipation of the rate increase (which took effect in 1987). In other words, an increase in the rate actually increased revenues, albeit temporarily. After that, with fewer gains to realize, realizations predictably declined, and eventually returned to their normal level -- until the Clinton adminstration, when the stock market went up so much that realizations boomed.

When Gibson pressed Senator Obama a second time, insisting that cutting the capital gains tax rate would raise revenue, Obama replied, "Well, that might happen or it might not. It depends on what's happening on Wall Street and how business is going." Obama also brought up the issue of fairness in the tax code, and the fact that wealthy people with capital gains can pay less in taxes than middle-class Americans, which is an unacceptable feature of our system.

Senator Clinton, however, stated, "wouldn't raise [the capital gains tax rate] above the 20 percent if I raised it at all. I would not raise it above what it was during the Clinton administration." This is an unfortunate response. The rate was higher than 20 percent during most of the Clinton administration and the economy thrived and revenues poured in. And, since the revenue "baseline" used by Congress already assumes that the rate will revert to 20 percent when the Bush tax cuts expire at the end of 2010, no "new" revenue will be raised to pay for the candidates' health care proposals or other new initiatives by simply letting the rate revert to 20 percent.

President's Veto Threat: Alternative Minimum Tax

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At the end of last year, Republicans in the Senate blocked attempts by Democrats to close tax loopholes and reduce offshore tax avoidance to pay for relief from the Alternative Minimum Tax. The White House had sent signals that the President would veto the Democratic bill if passed. Some Democrats in Congress are adamant that the debacle not be repeated, while some Republicans seem equally committed to increasing the federal budget deficit.

The alternative minimum tax (AMT) was originally created in the late 1960s to ensure that super-wealthy Americans pay at least some federal income taxes no matter how skillful they are at using tax loopholes. In recent years, its reach has expanded because Congress has not permanently indexed for inflation the exemptions that keep most of us from paying the AMT and, even more importantly, because the Bush tax cuts reduced ordinary income taxes without permanently changing the AMT. As more families see their ordinary income tax liability fall below their liability under the AMT, that means the AMT becomes relevant to the lives of more and more taxpayers.

Instead of permanently indexing the exemptions for inflation, Congress has been enacting "patches" to the AMT each year, measures that temporarily increase the exemptions to keep the AMT under control. A permanent fix was not included in the tax cut bills enacted when Republicans controlled Congress because that would have added to the official costs of those bills. Since the Democrats took control of Congress, they've attempted to reconcile AMT reform with their goal of avoiding any legislation that increases the federal budget deficit. Last year, Democrats in the House passed a one-year patch that would have been paid for by closing the loophole for carried interest paid to private equity fund managers and by cracking down on their use of offshore tax shelters. The administration called these provisions "tax increases" as did the Republicans in the Senate, who voted en masse to block the bill. Democratic leaders were then forced to pass an AMT patch that was not paid for, increasing the deficit by $50 billion.

This year there has been some discussion of using special budget procedures to make it easier to pass a bill that pays for AMT relief. If the budget resolution passed by Congress provides "reconciliation" instructions to change taxes or mandatory spending, a bill can be introduced later to accomplish that goal and can pass the Senate with just a bare majority of votes rather than the usual 60. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) told BNA recently that he would support using the reconciliation process for an AMT patch, but some Democrats in the Senate think that might make it more difficult to pass a budget this year.

Republican Senators Follow Bush Off a Cliff

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Congress is hurtling toward adjournment after resolving a series of stand-offs between Democrats and Republicans and between Congress and the President. Republicans in the Senate twice successfully blocked attempts to pay for AMT relief, while the President twice successfully vetoed expanded health insurance for children. Meanwhile, an attempt to shift tax breaks from "dirty" energy to "clean" energy failed by one vote, although Congress did enact some important non-tax-related energy provisions.

Alternative Minimum Tax: Congress Passes "Patch" But Doesn't Pay for It

On Wednesday, the House of Representatives approved a Senate-passed bill to "patch" the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT). The "patch" is basically a one-year measure that extends through 2007 the exemptions that keep most of us from paying the AMT, which is a sort of backstop tax that ensures the wealthy pay at least some minimum amount of income tax regardless of how many deductions and credits they claim.

The AMT was originally intended to target only the very wealthy. Over time its reach expanded because the exemptions were never indexed to inflation, and the Bush tax cuts caused the AMT to expand much more. Since the AMT is in fact an alternative tax, if regular income taxes are cut without corresponding cuts in the AMT, more people pay the AMT.

In 2001, the President chose not to include corresponding adjustments to the AMT in his tax cut plan, although he surely assumed Congress would prevent the AMT from taking back a large portion of the tax cuts for moderately well-off families. And that's exactly what Congress has done, albeit through temporary patches passed periodically rather than a permanent fix. The cost of these patches was never included in the cost estimates of the Bush tax cuts that were presented to the public when they were being debated, effectively masking the true costs of those cuts.

This obviated the need for even a pretense of offsetting those additional costs. Today Congress is still not offsetting those costs.

Republicans Block Two Fiscally Responsible AMT Bills

The Republicans in the Senate were able to block two attempts to pay for the AMT patch in the last two weeks, both of them approved by Democratic majorities in the House. The first bill (H.R. 3996) would have replaced the revenue, partially by closing the loophole for "carried interest" paid to managers of buyout funds and other types of funds which allows these super-wealthy individuals to pay taxes at a lower rate than middle-income people.

Every Democrat in the Senate voted to act on this version (minus the Presidential candidates who almost certainly would have voted for it if they had been present) and every Republican who voted voted against. In the Senate, 60 votes are required to consider most legislation, so the bill could not be acted on despite the support of every member of the majority party. Senate Democrats were then forced to approve the $50 billion patch without any offsets, violating their pledge to adhere to newly reinstated pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) rules.

The House passed another version of the AMT patch with offsets (H.R. 4351), this time focusing more on cracking down on offshore tax avoidance by fund managers. The pattern repeated itself in the Senate, as the Republican minority was able to block the bill, choosing to protect wealthy tax evaders who use offshore shell companies rather than paying for AMT relief.

On Wednesday the House of Representatives voted to approve the Senate-passed AMT patch without offsets. Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel said that it would be pointless to oppose AMT relief since it is very unlikely that the public would understand why a tax no one had ever heard of was suddenly affecting some families who were fairly well-off but not rich.

Media Neglects Role of GOP Obstruction

The press has focused unfairly on the "failures" of the Democrats to meet all of their goals.

This is unfair partly because the goals were extremely ambitious in retrospect. Democrats promised to provide $50 billion worth of AMT relief and also promised not to increase the deficit. This was while the Republicans in Congress and the President took an extreme stance on tax matters. Closing any tax loophole, even the most blatantly unfair tax loophole, represents a tax increase that will wreck the economy according to the President and his allies in Congress. They even equate stopping offshore tax evasion with tax increases that will discourage investment. In hindsight, it's clear that lawmakers taking this extremist position on taxes were ready to follow their President off a fiscal cliff by obstructing common sense measures.

It's also unfair to say the Democrats "caved" on PAYGO, as some media accounts have it, given that every Democrat in the Senate voted to pay for the AMT relief as did all-Democratic majorities in the House. Thanks to the 60-vote threshold to pass legislation in the Senate, the minority party was able to block the fiscally responsible legislation. Why the press has largely failed to note that Republican obstruction is the root cause of the AMT-PAYGO debacle is entirely unclear.

On Wednesday, December 12, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill, H.R. 4351, that would extend the exemptions that keep the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) from affecting most Americans and would replace the revenue the AMT is projected to otherwise collect. One provision would help replace the AMT revenue by restricting offshore tax avoidance schemes by wealthy individuals. Another provision would delay the implementation of an unnecessary tax break for multinational businesses which hasn't even gone into effect yet.

Dropped from this bill is a provision that would end the tax subsidy for "carried interest," a type of compensation paid to wealthy fund managers. Carried interest is currently taxed at a special, low 15 percent rate, lower than the tax rate paid by many middle-class families. Last week, Republicans in the Senate blocked a similar House-passed bill that would have ended this tax subsidy because they were committed to defending this break for millionaire fund managers. So, in the spirit of compromise, the House passed H.R. 4351 on Wednesday without the carried interest provision.

Incredibly, Republican leaders in the Senate are insisting that they will block this new bill even though it lacks the "controversial" carried interest provision. They seem to believe that H.R. 4351 includes "tax increases" that will hurt the economy. By this logic, the economy literally depends on the ability of rich individuals to avoid taxes by using offshore shell companies. Also by this logic, the economy depends on a tax break for multinational companies that has not even gone into effect yet.

Meanwhile, 17 Democratic members of the House, mostly members of the Progressive Caucus, signed a letter sent to House Speak Nancy Pelosi demanding that the cost of AMT relief be fully offset. The letter argues, quoting Citizens for Tax Justice, that "AMT relief, by itself, would not be particularly progressive ... Most of the benefits would go to the richest fifth of taxpayers, and if it's deficit financed, the cost could be borne in the future by middle-income Americans in the form of cuts in public services or higher taxes. But AMT relief can be progressive if the costs are offset with revenue-raising provisions that target the very wealthiest Americans, those who have benefited the most from the Bush tax cuts." The leadership of the 48-member Blue Dog Coalition of Democrats in the House also has stated repeatedly that any AMT relief that is not paid for will be unacceptable.

For more information about the House bill and how it offsets the cost of AMT relief, see the new short paper from Citizens for Tax Justice describing the legislation.

New Paper from CTJ Criticizes Turn to Borrowing

On Thursday, December 6, Republicans in the Senate voted en masse against consideration of a bill (H.R. 3996) passed last month by the House of Representatives to provide relief from the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) and offset the cost by closing loopholes for extremely wealthy financial managers. Instead, Republican leaders demanded that the federal government borrow the $50 billion. They got their way later in the evening, when the chamber passed a bill simply extending AMT relief without paying for it.

This sets the stage for a standoff with the House, where Democratic leaders are adamant that no laws be enacted to increase the federal deficit, in keeping with the pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) rules that were reinstated when the Democrats took control of Congress earlier this year. But in the Senate, because 60 votes are needed to pass most legislation, the Republicans were able to block the fiscally responsible approach even though it was supported by every member of the majority party.

Citizens for Tax Justice released a two-page paper today with figures explaining why this is a bad deal for middle-income Americans.

"I'm willing to accept a tax cut for people making upwards of $100,000 a year, if we send the bill to people making millions," said CTJ director Robert S. McIntyre. "But I can't support cutting taxes for such well-off people and sending the bill to people who make $50,000. Yet sadly, it's exactly those ordinary taxpayers who will likely bear the cost of the increased debt -- through higher taxes or reduced public services in the future."

Republicans Manage to Preserve Loophole for "Carried Interest" -- for Now

In the AMT relief bill passed by the House last month, one of the revenue-raising provisions to offset the cost would have closed the loophole for "carried interest," a type of compensation paid to buyout fund managers. Republican leaders have demanded that this loophole allowing wealthy fund managers to pay taxes at a lower rate than middle-income families be preserved. They appear to have gotten their way for now, as House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel has said he would drop the carried interest provision and replace it with some potentially more palatable revenue-raising provision.

But the battle over carried interest is far from over. In September, CTJ sent to the House and Senate a letter signed by around 300 organizations from every state urging that the loophole be closed. Lobbyists for the industry have acknowledged that the issue is likely to come up again in the next couple of years as Congress considers broader tax reform.

CTJ would like to thank all those who helped begin the fight to close the carried interest loophole. As a result of these efforts, the majority party in both chambers has, after some initial hesitation, completely adopted the position that the loophole should be eliminated. We will continue to build on these efforts as Congress turns to broader tax reform.

President Bush Relied on Expanding Reach of AMT to Mask Cost of His Tax Cuts

Republican congressional leaders claim that Congress should eliminate the AMT without paying for it because no one ever intended to collect the AMT's revenues. But that's not true.

When George W. Bush proposed his tax cut plan, he and his tax advisors were well aware that, since the AMT is an alternative tax, lowering the regular tax rates without adjusting the AMT would push tens of millions of people into the AMT. But they needed the added AMT revenues to significantly reduce the projected cost of Bush's tax cut program. In fact, Bush's chief economic advisor was adamant that Bush's plan contemplated a huge increase in the AMT.

"Having created most of the AMT problem, Bush and his congressional allies are now trying to rewrite history so they can get away with loading even more debt on our children," said McIntyre. "They shouldn't be allowed to get away with it."

Tax Fairness Wins in the House of Representatives; Battle Ahead in the Senate

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On Friday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 216-193 to pass H.R. 3996, a bill to extend relief from the Alternative Minimum Tax and other tax breaks for one year and offset the costs by reducing tax loopholes for private equity fund managers and others. All but eight Democrats present voted for the bill, while all the Republicans present voted against it.

The AMT provision is known as a "patch" because it prevents the AMT from reaching millions of more taxpayers (as the AMT is scheduled to do under current law) for a year but does not permanently address this problem. A larger bill (H.R. 3970) was introduced by Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel (D-NY) on October 25 to repeal the AMT entirely and offset the costs, mostly with a surtax that would reduce the Bush tax cuts for those families with incomes above half a million dollars a year. This bill is a major tax reform that would make the tax code simpler and more progressive without making the fiscal situation worse than it already is.

But because Republicans seem sure to block any provision that would reduce tax breaks even for the richest Americans, Rangel introduced the smaller bill (H.R. 3996) to patch the AMT for just one year, giving Congress more time to consider his more comprehensive tax reform. H.R 3996 borrows many of the good ideas from the larger bill, like closing the loophole for "carried interest" and a loophole that allows private equity fund managers to set up deferred compensation arrangements in offshore tax havens to avoid taxes. H.R. 3996 would also extend some business tax breaks (such as the research credit) for one year. Smaller provisions in the bill would make the Child Tax Credit more accessible for poor families and would create an additional standard deduction for property taxes for those who do not itemize their tax deductions.

Surprising Amount of Focus on "Carried Interest"

The Republicans chose the counter-intuitive strategy of rallying around one of the most offensive and blatantly unfair loopholes in the tax code, the loophole for "carried interest," which is a form of compensation paid to certain types of fund managers. This loophole essentially allows these fund managers to earn hundreds of millions of dollars and yet pay taxes at a lower rate than their middle-income receptionists.

Citizens for Tax Justice sent members of Congress a new fact sheet explaining that the loophole is a subsidy paid to millionaires, through the tax code, and funded by the rest of us who are paying income taxes at ordinary rates. The loophole is enjoyed by those who manage other people's money but are allowed to pretend that they're investing their own money -- which entitles them to the low, 15 percent rate for capital gains. Contrary to the confusion sowed by fund managers, the capital gains rate for those who actually invest would not be altered.

Citizens for Tax Justice also issued a statement responding to the claim that the real estate industry would be damaged if the carried interest loophole is closed. The vast majority of people who are affected by what goes on in the real estate industry -- realtors, construction workers and home-buyers -- pay income taxes at ordinary rates like everyone else, meaning that they are paying for this loophole rather than benefiting from it.

Most important, however, was the willingness of hundreds of state and local organizations from around the country to tell Congress that this loophole is simply unfair to ordinary taxpayers in their states. Thanks to all the organizations that joined the sign-on letter urging Congress to close the loophole.

Battle Ahead in the Senate

Several in the Senate have suggested that it will be difficult to secure the 60 votes needed to avoid a filibuster in their chamber and approve this bill. Many Republican Senators, including the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee, Charles Grassley (R-IA) have made clear that they would rather increase the federal budget deficit than pay for AMT relief. We would suggest that any anti-tax conservative in the Senate who wants to take responsibility for filibustering AMT relief for millions of taxpayers should go ahead and do so to make his or her position clear to the public.

By a party-line vote, the House Ways and Means Committee on Thursday approved legislation (H.R. 3996) that would prevent the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) from expanding its reach to millions of more families for one year. Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel (D-NY) had hoped earlier this year to pass his larger plan to address the AMT permanently, as discussed above, but some lawmakers oppose his provisions to pay for AMT reform and would rather increase the budget deficit. As a result, Chairman Rangel introduced this smaller bill, which includes a "patch" of the AMT for one year at a cost of about $50 billion, and hopes the larger plan will be acted on sometime in the next couple years.

The smaller bill approved Thursday also includes one-year extensions of some special interest tax breaks that are technically temporary but whose extension by Congress has become so routine that Hill insiders refer to them as the "extenders." The extenders cost about $21 billion.

Help for Low-Income Included

Also included is a change in the Child Tax Credit rules to make it easier for poor families to benefit from the credit, as well as a small additional standard deduction for middle-income homeowners. These two provisions combined cost about $4 billion over ten years.

Rangel Stands Firm -- Tax Cuts Will Be Paid For By Closing Carried Interest Loophole, Among Others

The smaller bill borrows some very good ideas from the larger plan in order to pay for the one-year AMT relief and the extenders. One of these provisions would eliminate the "carried interest" loophole for private equity fund managers, which would raise about $26 billion over ten years. Another provision would limit the ability of private equity fund managers to set up deferred compensation arrangements in offshore tax havens to avoid taxes, and would raise about $24 billion over ten years.

Another provision would delay the implementation of a tax break that was passed in 2004 but is not yet in effect. The 2004 tax break essentially expands a loophole allowing multinational corporations to take U.S. tax deductions for interest payments that are really foreign expenses. The provision delays this tax break several years and raises $25 billion over ten years.

Republicans Say Their Own Tax Laws Will Lead to the Biggest Tax Increase in History

Republicans members of the committee were hostile to the offsets and argued during the markup of the bill that the AMT should be repealed and the revenue should not be replaced because it was never intended to be collected. This ignores the fact that the Bush Administration intentionally decided not to permanently fix the AMT when it enacted tax cuts in order to mask the true cost of those tax cuts. It also ignores the fact that the Bush Administration, like Congress during both Republican and Democratic control, has budget plans that assume the expanded AMT revenue (based on current law under which the AMT will expand its reach) will be collected.

Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) pointed out the irony of the minority party's argument. Republicans at the hearing seemed to say that the expiration of the Bush tax cuts -- which was written into the laws enacted by President Bush and the Republican Congress, along with the scheduled expansion of the AMT that was intentionally left in place when Republicans controlled Congress and the White House -- would lead to the "biggest tax increase in history." Even if we believed that allowing the tax laws to exist as they're currently written could constitute a tax increase, it would be hard to understand why the complaints are coming from the party that held power and passed a major tax bill every year for six years.

Meanwhile, even the conservative Washington Times has editorialized that "it seems disingenuous" for the GOP to call Rangel's plan a tax hike.

Carlyle Group, Beneficiary of Carried Interest Loophole, Embarrassed by Protest

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Photograph from New York Times

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) staged a protest Wednesday in front of the office of the Carlyle Group, the private equity firm that buys up nursing home management operators, defense companies and other businesses that get billions of dollars from the federal government. The partners at Carlyle are able to earn hundreds of millions of taxpayer-provided dollars while paying a lower tax rate than middle-income Americans thanks to the carried interest loophole.

The demonstration included people pushing wheelbarrows full of bags of "cash" from the IRS, which is located across the street, to a "fat cat" sitting on the front steps of Carlyle's office.

In light of this sort of press, it's really no wonder that private equity lobbyists are saying that the controversy over their tax breaks is far from over.

Battle Only Beginning Over the "Carried Interest" Tax Loophole for Billionaire Fund Managers

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On Tuesday, the Washington Post created a great deal of confusion by reporting that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has told lawmakers and lobbyists that the Senate will not have time this year to consider legislation eliminating the "carried interest" loophole, which allows billionaire fund managers to pay a lower tax rate than their middle-income receptionists. This was seen in some quarters as an indication that the issue is dead for this year, provoking several editorials blasting the Senate Democrats for choosing campaign contributions from lobbyists over tax fairness. The reality is that whether the Senate addresses the carried interest issue is largely up to the Senate Finance Committee, not Senator Reid.

Carried Interest Issue Wound Up in Debate Over Alternative Minimum Tax

Whether or not the Senate is unduly influenced by lobbyists is certainly a question worthy of debate, but some clarification is in order. It's true that the Senate is not likely to consider a stand-alone bill that does nothing but close the carried interest loophole. But every member of Congress already knows that. No one in Congress is talking about a stand-alone bill. The question everyone is considering is whether or not a provision to close the loophole should be used to offset the cost of other legislation Congress wants to pass. For example, Congress needs to pass a bill to keep the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) from affecting more taxpayers.

The number of people affected by the AMT will increase from around four million last year to 23 million this year if Congress does not act, and just fixing the AMT for this year alone would cost over $50 billion since Congress and the administration have always assumed that this revenue would be collected. A provision closing the carried interest loophole would raise some revenue (although an official estimate has not yet been made) and could therefore be used to offset part of the cost of dealing with the AMT. Over in the House, Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel (D-NY) has long said that he will likely try to close the loophole to help offset the cost of fixing the AMT.

Ball Is in the Finance Committee's Court

What types of "offsets" are attached to an AMT bill in the Senate is not decided by Senator Reid. It's decided by the Senate Finance Committee, and Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) has not yet said whether or not he'll include a provision to close the carried interest loophole. But he and ranking member Charles Grassley (R-IA) have both shown interest. An AMT bill needs to include offsets now that Congress operates under pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) rules that prevent it from increasing the budget deficit. Once the Finance Committee approves an AMT bill and sends it to the full Senate, Senator Reid will make time for a floor vote, since it will shield over 20 million families with voting members from an increase in their Alternative Minimum Tax.

Carried Interest Issue Won't Die Regardless of What Happens This Year

Regardless of what happens this year, there's enough public anger over the carried interest loophole to keep the issue alive for some time. Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama have come out in favor of eliminating the loophole. Edwards and Obama even made a point of expressing their outrage that the issue hasn't been resolved by now. Even a chief lobbyist for the private equity industry said Wednesday that "It's not over; it's only just beginning."

For now, all eyes should be on the members of the Senate Finance Committee, particularly its chairman, Max Baucus.

Senator Levin Targets Deductions for Stock Options

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Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) introduced a bill this week to end the disparity between deductions taken by companies for stock options and the expenses that are actually reported on the companies' books for those options. Corporations sometimes compensate employees (particularly executives) with options to buy stock at a set price. The employee can wait to exercise the option until after the value of the stock has increased beyond that price, thus enjoying a substantial tax benefit.

When stock options are exercised, employees report the difference between the value of the stock and the exercise price as taxable wages. The employer reports the fair value of the option at the date it's granted in its financial statements, yet takes a deduction for the value of the option on the date it is exercised, which is often much greater. This "book-tax gap" means that how the options are valued for accounting purposes and reported to stock-holders is different from how they're valued and reported to the IRS. Levin's bill would make the amount deducted for tax purposes equal to the value accounted for in financial statements.

According to calculations made by his staff using IRS data and released in June, firms deducted $43 billion that was not included in financial books in this manner between December 2004 to June 2005. CTJ's 2004 study of corporate taxes cited stock options as one of the key reasons corporations were able to avoid taxes.

Tax Fairness Advocates Fire Back at Lobbyists for Investment Managers

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Members of Congress returning to Washington this week were greeted with a call from over three hundred non-profits, unions, and faith-based groups to end the "carried interest" tax loophole that vastly reduces the tax bills of certain millionaires and billionaires in the investment industry.

Legislation (H.R. 2834) proposed by Rep. Sander Levin (D-MI) would eliminate this loophole. Several progressive national organizations and unions have begun their own lobbying campaigns in support of the Levin bill.

A letter applauding the Levin bill was signed by the 300 groups from every state and was sent to members of Congress earlier this week. The letter argues that "it's an outrage that Americans who are paid millions or even billions for their labor can be subject to lower federal tax rates than their middle-income receptionists."

General partners in private equity funds and other types of funds invest other people's money and are often paid huge sums for their services. Part of this pay is in the form of "carried interest," which is a share of profits. The loophole allows the general partners to pay the low, 15 percent rate for capital gains on their carried interest, even though they have not contributed capital and do not own the capital assets.

Private Equity Industry Working Hard to Defend the Indefensible

Lobbyists from the private equity industry descended upon House and Senate offices as soon as the Levin bill was introduced. The industry has produced a bewildering variety of arguments, often contradicting themselves, to defend this loophole over the past several months. This pattern continued on Thursday, when the Senate Finance Committee held its third hearing on the issue and the House Ways and Means Committee held a day-long hearing on tax fairness issues, including the carried interest loophole.

Representatives for the private equity industry have at times argued that they are developing companies through their hard work, implying that they deserve a tax break for this reason. At other times they have argued that their carried interest is not pay for work, to justify being taxed as if they have capital gains. They have at times argued that pensioners will suffer if the loophole is closed because the fund managers will find the tax increase so odious that they will no longer have an incentive to provide investment management services to pension funds. At other times they have argued that they'll just pass the tax increase onto pensioners and other investors, which would suggest that they won't find anything at all odious about the tax increase and that they should be indifferent to it.

Public employee pensions, which often invest a small portion of their assets in private equity, have generally not joined the private equity industry's side in this debate.

One novel argument made by the industry is that the carried interest loophole helps African-American and ethnic minorities accumulate assets. It's difficult to imagine how this argument could be effective. Three of the co-sponsors for the Levin bill are members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Ways and Means chairman Charles Rangel. Chairman Rangel hopes to make legislation to close the carried interest loophole, and possibly other unnecessary tax loopholes, part of a larger bill that would reform the Alternative Minimum Tax.

Crunch Time for Congress

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The House Ways and Means Committee has pushed back its plans to hold a hearing on the tax loophole for private equity "carried interest" until September. The loophole allows private equity fund managers to pay only the 15 percent capital gains tax on carried interest, which is the majority of their compensation in many cases, even though they actually don't make capital investments. The result is that fund managers making millions, even over a billion dollars a year, pay a lower tax rate than middle-income people. A bill introduced by Sander Levin (D-MI) (H.R. 2834) would close this loophole and tax carried interest as ordinary income. The industry has begun a fierce lobbying and PR campaign to defend this loophole, and CTJ has issued its own response to the deceptive claims being made.

The Senate Finance Committee is currently considering a more limited bill (S. 1624) that would affect those private equity firms that are publicly traded partnerships, requiring them to pay corporate taxes like other publicly traded companies. Finance Chairman Max Baucus and ranking member Charles Grassley (R-IA) have indicated that they are interested in exploring the possibility of passing another bill in the future along the lines of the Levin bill. The committee held a hearing on the issue on July 11 and will hold another on July 31. Baucus expects to pass S. 1624 in the fall and consider a broader bill sometime after that.

New CTJ Fact Sheet Debunks Myths about the Private Equity Tax Loophole

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New CTJ Fact Sheet

As Warren Buffet recently stated, it's an outrage that Americans who are paid millions or even billions for their labor can be subject to lower federal tax rates than their middle-income receptionists. This is particularly true of private equity fund managers, the multi-millionaires who get a special tax break for the compensation they receive for managing people's money.

A receptionist, a firefighter or a police officer who is unmarried and earns $50,000 a year pays a federal income tax rate of 25 percent on a large share of her income. That's after she pays around 15 percent of all of her income in federal payroll taxes. But thanks to a loophole in the tax code, private equity fund managers pay only the 15 percent capital gains tax on what they call "carried interest," which is usually most of their compensation. This is despite the fact that the capital gains rate was enacted for those who invest and put at risk their own capital, not those who manage other people's money.

Congressman Sander Levin has introduced a bill (H.R. 2834) in the House of Representatives that would close this tax loophole. The private equity industry and its lobbyists have already started an aggressive campaign to confuse the public about this issue. Get the facts in CTJ's new fact sheet.

Should Wealthy Investors Have Lower Tax Rates than the Rest of Us?

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Warren Buffet attacked the federal tax preference for the rich over the middle-class Tuesday, arguing that it is an outrage that his receptionist pays a higher effective tax rate than he does. A major cause of the problem is the special low tax rate (15 percent) for capital gains and dividends, which mostly benefits the wealthy. Conservatives often argue that repealing this tax break or allowing it to expire (it currently is scheduled to expire at the end of 2010) would cause investment to dry up and lead to a loss of jobs. Unfortunately for proponents of the tax break, there has been no relationship between low capital gains tax rates and economic growth over the past 50 years. The lower rate can just as easily lead to greater inefficiency in the economy, since it can result in tax shelters that have no real economic rationale (as investments are made purely to transform ordinary income into capital gains).

Congress May Take a Small Step in the Right Direction

For those members of Congress who get a little weak-kneed at the thought of allowing the President's favorite tax cut to expire or be repealed, there are smaller steps that can be taken in this direction. For one thing, private equity fund managers making millions or even billions of dollars are taking advantage of the special capital gains rate even though they are not actually investing their own capital.

The House Ways and Means Committee is expected to hold hearings in July to consider a bill (H.R. 2834) that would close this loophole. Meanwhile, Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) and ranking member Charles Grassley (R-IA) are sponsoring a narrower bill that would require publicly traded partnerships that get their income from investment services to pay the corporate income tax rate of 35 percent (which is what other publicly traded partnerships almost always must pay) instead of the capital gains rate they currently pay. The Finance Committee is expected to hold hearings later this summer and it is not yet clear if Baucus will add the provisions the House includes in its version relating to the taxing of the fund managers' compensation.

Citizens for Tax Justice director Robert McIntyre has recently appeared on television twice to debate this issue, once on May 7 and a second time on June 21.

Hedge Fund Managers May Finally Face Fair Taxes

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The visibility of a tax dodge for hedge fund managers continued to grow this week, as former Treasury secretary Robert Rubin spoke Tuesday at a forum arranged by the Hamilton Project about why hedge fund and private equity managers ought to be taxed at a higher rate. Currently, these managers charge a fee for their investment and money management services and report their fee as a capital gain, making it subject to a tax rate of just 15 percent. Fees are assessed as 20 percent of profits.

Private equity firms, and increasingly hedge funds, operate by using independent investor money to purchase companies, improve them, and then sell them for a profit. The overall investment process, which may take up to seven years, does constitute a capital gain. However, fund managers are performing a management service, not risking their own money, so any capital gains are not really theirs to report.

Rubin argued that the managers are performing a basic service, and "fees for that service would ordinarily be thought of as ordinary income." Income for these wealthy managers, he argued, should be subject to the regular income tax rates of up to 35 percent. Manager income has skyrocketed recently with earnings ranging from $500 million to $2 billion a year. With an already quite low capital gains rate, fund managers are clearly not paying their fair share, and a new plan could bring in additional revenue and create a more progressive tax system. On a related issue, Democrat Max Baucus and Republican Charles Grassley of the Senate Finance Committee proposed on Friday that some private equity firms should be taxed under the corporate tax rate rather than being taxed as partnerships as they currently are. We look forward to hearing more about this proposed legislation.

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