When President Obama and the new Congress begin to tackle important legislation and federal policy in January, one of the key issues will be how to reform America's byzantine tax code.
Obama campaigned on a platform to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans, declaring that millionaires and billionaires need to "pay their fair share." The president proposed the highly controversial "Buffett Rule," which would make sure those individuals earning more than $1 million a year would pay at least 30% of their income in federal taxes.
The top individual tax rate is currently 35% but few U.S. households and individuals actually pay that much; various tax deductions and loopholes reduce one's tax burden.
According to the Obama campaign, the richest 400 taxpayers in 2008 (who each made more than $110 million that year) paid an average income tax rate of just 18%. In 2009 over 20,000 U.S. households with more than $1 million in income paid a federal tax rate of less than 15%.
Obama has vowed to raise the top income tax rate for individuals to 39.6% and let the Bush-era tax breaks end for the highest income earners. The majority of Americans — those who are lower to middle class — could also see a 2% tax increase if Congress allows the temporary payroll tax holiday to expire at the end of the year.
Nearly half of voters support raising taxes on incomes over $250,000, according to Tuesday night's exit polls.
Len Burman, a professor of public affairs at Syracuse University and a co-founder of the bipartisan Tax Policy Center, believes higher tax rates play just a small role in resolving the nation's budget woes.
"In the long term [Obama] is going to need to raise taxes on more than just the rich," Burman says in an interview with The Daily Ticker. "The budget problem isn't going to be solved without broader-based tax increases, preferably done in the context of tax reform and also serious entitlement reform. We're not going to be able to solve this on the tax side alone."
Burman, who recently co-wrote the new book "Taxes in America: What Everyone Needs to Know," says tax rates do not need to be raised for any income group if Congress and the White House would agree on one simple change: raising the capital gains rate, i.e. the profits from the sale of an investment. Assets, such as stocks, art or real estate, that are held for at least a year are currently taxed at a special 15% rate; Obama wants to raise that to 20%.
"The problem with a low tax rate on capital gains is not that it allows Mitt Romney and Warren Buffett to pay very low taxes but that it creates this huge opportunity for tax sheltering," he notes. "There's a whole industry that's devoted to coming up with these schemes. [Raising capital gains rates] could make the tax system more progressive and allow for lower tax rates" and a reduction in the deficit Burman says.
Obama's tax proposal also targets the Alternative Minimum Tax, the Estate Tax and as well as many personal tax credits and itemized deductions. Obama would make permanent the 2007 AMT patch and index it for inflation. He would raise the estate tax to 45% from 35% on estates worth more than $3.5 million. He would lower the corporate tax rate to 28% from 35% and provide a refundable $3,000 credit per added employee for companies that expand their workforce. He would tax carried interest as ordinary income.
A divided Congress refused to compromise with Obama during his first term and could very well dismiss the president's tax reforms for the next four years. Republicans are loathe to raise taxes by even a penny and Obama has said he would veto any budget bills that did not include tax increases. Neither party wants to raise taxes in a weak economy. But the options available for reducing the deficit and generating new revenue are few and far between.
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