The Center's work on 'Federal Tax' Issues

The Center analyzes major tax proposals, examining their likely effects on the economy and on the government’s ability to address critical national needs, especially over the long term. We place particular emphasis on the effects of tax proposals on households at different income levels. In addition, we analyze trends in the level of federal revenues, income distribution, and tax burdens.


Ryan Backs Reform to Mortgage Interest Deduction — But Bigger Changes Needed

August 27, 2014 at 1:34 pm

Endorsing House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp’s proposal to limit the mortgage interest deduction recently, Budget Chairman Paul Ryan explained that it “ought to be a middle class tax break, not something for higher-income earners.”  He’s right to criticize the deduction for favoring those at the top but, while Camp’s proposal moves in the right direction, policymakers should go further.

The deduction, which Camp would limit to mortgages up to $500,000 (cutting the current $1 million limit in half), is ripe for reform (see graph).  Some 42 percent of its benefits go to households with incomes above $200,000, the Joint Tax Committee estimates, while only 8 percent go to households with incomes below $75,000.  Close to half of homeowners with mortgages don’t benefit at all because they either don’t owe federal income taxes (though they typically pay substantial payroll taxes and/or state and local taxes) or don’t itemize deductions.

Federal housing spending as a whole is poorly matched to need, and policymakers could do more to rebalance it if they not only capped the deduction for the largest mortgages but also converted the deduction to a credit worth a fixed percentage of a household’s mortgage interest.

Several bipartisan plans — including those from President George W. Bush’s tax reform panel and the chairs of President Obama’s fiscal commission, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson — have backed this approach, which would trim benefits for higher-income households while expanding them for many middle- and lower-income households.

Policymakers should redirect part of the savings from reforming the mortgage interest deduction (after deficit-reduction goals are met) to help low-income renters, for example by creating a renters’ tax credit.  Low-income renters — including elderly people, people with disabilities, and working-poor families with children — are more likely than other groups to struggle to keep a roof over their heads, but federal housing policy provides far more help to homeowners and higher-income households.

IRS Commissioner Confirms House-Passed Cuts to IRS Budget Could Be “Catastrophic”

August 25, 2014 at 3:48 pm

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said, according to Tax Notes, that the effects of House-passed IRS budget cuts would be “very serious if not catastrophic” to the agency’s ability to collect revenue and provide taxpayer services, adding: “I no longer want people to think that if we get less money it doesn’t make any difference.  It makes a big difference on taxpayers, on tax preparers, on tax compliance, on tax enforcement.”

As we have written, the House bill would cut IRS funding by $1.5 billion in 2015, including a $1.2 billion reduction in the agency’s enforcement budget, relative to 2014 funding.  The enforcement budget is crucial to the IRS’ ability to collect revenue and pursue tax cheats.  As Commissioner Koskinen affirms, reducing the IRS enforcement budget actually increases the deficit because it prevents the agency from thwarting tax fraud, evasion, and other illegal behavior, thus reducing federal revenue:

Congress is starving our revenue-generating operation. If voluntary compliance with the tax code drops by 1 percent, it costs the U.S. government $30 billion per year.  The IRS annual budget is only $11 billion per year.

And the House cuts would come on top of years of IRS budget cuts that have already weakened enforcement and harmed taxpayer services.  Funding for the IRS fell by 14 percent (after accounting for inflation) between 2010 and 2014 (see chart).  These cuts forced the agency to reduce its workforce by over 10,000 employees and have led directly to a significant decline in the quality of taxpayer services.

For example, millions of taxpayers depend on IRS assistance over the telephone, yet in 2013, a typical caller to the IRS waited on hold for about 18 minutes for an IRS representative, and about 40 percent of calls were never answered.  This is a sharp decline from 2010, when the IRS answered three-quarters of calls and had an average wait time of just under 11 minutes.

Commissioner Koskinen was frank about the impact of continued cuts:

You cannot continue to reduce our resources and ask us to do more things.  The blind belief in Congress that they can continue to cut funding and we will just become more efficient is not the case.  We are becoming more efficient but there is a limit.  Eventually the effects will show up.  We are no longer going to pretend that cutting funding makes no difference.

Policymakers must give the IRS the resources it needs to fulfill its tax-collecting mission and provide the services taxpayers depend on.  The first step is for the Senate and the President to reject the reckless House cuts.

Kleinbard: “Competitiveness” Argument for Moving Firms’ Headquarters Overseas Is a Canard

August 12, 2014 at 10:10 am

The claim that many U.S. companies are moving their headquarters overseas because U.S. corporate tax rates make them uncompetitive is “largely fact-free,” USC law professor and former Joint Tax Committee staff director Edward Kleinbard concludes in a new paper.

While many firms and their lobbyists highlight the 35 percent top U.S. corporate rate, that’s not what companies actually pay, Kleinbard explains.  The effective tax rate that U.S. multinationals face on their worldwide income — that is, the share of this income that they pay in taxes — is well below this statutory rate.  A big reason is that multinationals report vast amounts of their income as coming from tax havens where they pay little or no tax, even if they have few staff and do little business there.

Kleinbard also explains that the 2004 repatriation tax holiday, which allowed multinationals to bring profits held overseas back to the United States at a temporary, vastly reduced tax rate, gave them a big incentive to stockpile billions more in tax havens and await another tax holiday.  These large stashes of profits in tax havens are an important reason — Kleinbard thinks the key reason — why many companies are considering moving their headquarters overseas.  By “inverting,” these companies can basically declare their own, permanent tax holiday and avoid ever paying U.S. taxes on foreign-held profits.  And once inverted, they can use legal avoidance schemes to effectively get those profits to their U.S. shareholders.

In other words, multinationals are already using tax havens to achieve zero or extremely low tax rates.  Firms considering inversions are searching not for a “competitive” tax rate but a zero tax rate by ensuring that those profits remain “stateless” — that is, taxed nowhere at all. (Echoing a famous line from Mae West, Kleinbard’s paper is titled “‘Competitiveness’ Has Nothing to Do With It.”)

Kleinbard’s solution has three parts:

  1. Make it harder for a U.S. multinational to invert.
  2. Prevent companies that do invert from effectively distributing their “foreign profits” to U.S. shareholders without paying U.S. tax.
  3. Make it harder for all U.S. multinationals to claim that U.S.-earned profits were actually earned in tax havens and low-tax countries.

Reagan’s Actions Made Him a True EITC Champion

August 1, 2014 at 11:03 am

We’ve noted that the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which reduces poverty while encouraging and rewarding work, has enjoyed broad support over the years.  One of its champions was President Reagan, who proposed and then signed a major expansion of it in the 1986 Tax Reform Act.

While Reagan is often quoted as calling the EITC “the best anti-poverty, the best pro-family, the best job creation measure to come out of Congress,” he was, as Tax Policy Center director Len Burman blogged this week, actually referring to the 1986 tax reform as a whole, not just its EITC component.  But that takes nothing away from Reagan’s role in strengthening the EITC.

Burman correctly notes that “Republican icon Ronald Reagan supported the Tax Reform Act of 1986’s expansion of the EITC.”   Indeed, Reagan did more than support the EITC increase; he proposed it.

The tax proposals that President Reagan submitted to Congress in 1985 included a proposal to phase in the credit more quickly as a worker’s income rises, expand the maximum EITC, phase the credit out more slowly so that more families would be eligible, and index these parameters for inflation.  The final legislation included the Reagan-proposed phase-in (14 percent) and phase-out (10 percent) rates, as well as his proposed indexation.  Congress went even further on its increase in the maximum credit.

There’s no question that Ronald Reagan’s actions secured his place as a strong advocate of the EITC.

IMF and OECD Call for Stronger EITC and Minimum Wage

July 30, 2014 at 11:42 am

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which have previously recommended expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and raising the federal minimum wage, both issued recent reports underscoring that these measures should be viewed as complements, not competing alternatives.

The reminder that a higher minimum wage can make a stronger EITC more effective at reducing poverty and encouraging work is especially timely given House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s new poverty plan.  Ryan commendably recommended expanding the EITC for childless workers and non-custodial parents, but presented this as an alternative to a minimum wage increase.

The IMF report recommends:

An expansion of the EITC (including making permanent the various extensions that are due to expire in 2017) would also raise living standards for the very poor.  Finally, given its current low level, the minimum wage should be increased.  This would help raise incomes for millions of working poor and would have strong complementarities with the suggested improvements in the EITC, working in tandem to ensure a meaningful increase in after-tax earnings for the nation’s poorest households.

The OECD working paper reiterates the OECD’s previous finding that “the EITC is a large and successful antipoverty program” and recommends strengthening the EITC for childless workers and non-custodial adults, along with raising the minimum wage.  Because the EITC is a proven work incentive, it expands the number of people seeking jobs in the low-wage sector, which can put some downward pressure on the wages that employers offer potential workers — meaning that some EITC dollars would effectively flow to employers, not workers.  A higher minimum wage helps offset that effect.  As the OECD explains:

Setting the federal minimum wage at a reasonable level can also help to make the EITC more effective at raising incomes. Although hard to quantify, employers could be capturing part of the credit by paying lower wages than they would in the absence of the EITC (OECD, 2009). Increasing the federal minimum wage would counteract this dead-weight loss by supporting wage levels.

For policymakers of either party striving to expand opportunity and raise the living standards of working-poor families, the policy roadmap is clear:  extend the recent improvements in the EITC and Child Tax Credit, expand the EITC for childless workers, and raise the minimum wage.