Commentary

Tax Panel Omission

This article appeared in the Washington Times on October 27, 2005.
The president’s tax reform panel, headed by former Sens. Connie Mack and John Breaux, is set to propose two interesting plans. Plan A is a simplified income tax. Plan B is a more radical consumption-based tax. Both plans have features that would reduce tax code complexity and promote growth. However, the plans are missing a crucial element of supply side tax reform: substantial rate cuts.

First, the good news. Plan A would simplify the income tax by consolidating savings incentives and ending itemized deductions. Businesses would get simplified rules for depreciation and foreign earnings. The plan would boost growth by ending the double taxation of dividends and allowing individuals to exclude 75 percent of capital gains from tax.

Plan B is structured like the Steve Forbes flat tax, but it has four tax rates instead of one. A pure version of Plan B would tax just labor income at the individual level and capital income at the business level. It is “consumption-based” because individuals would not be taxed on the returns to savings and businesses would immediately write off, or expense, investments. That would be a very pro-growth tax structure.

However, responding to class warfare concerns, the panel added a 15 percent tax for dividends, interest and capital gains on top of the pure Plan B. With this compromise, it is not clear that the plan is much better than Plan A. However, for businesses the use of cash-flow accounting and the equal treatment of debt and equity would increase efficiency and reduce tax sheltering. And as panel members noted, business expensing would spur capital investment, increase worker productivity and raise American wages.

The bad news is that substantial tax rate cuts are missing from the proposals. Under Plan A, the top individual tax rate would be cut from 35 to 33 percent. Under Plan B, it wouldn’t be cut at all. Under both plans, the corporate rate would be cut only modestly from 35 to 32 percent.

Yet if “tax reform” means anything, it means big cuts to marginal rates. The bipartisan Tax Reform Act of 1986 cut the top individual rate from 50 to 28 percent and the top corporate rate from 46 to 34 percent.

The need for rate cuts is more acute today than in 1986. Reformist governments around the globe are cutting marginal rates and putting pressure on antiquated tax systems like ours. Eastern Europe is enjoying a flat tax revolution. The average corporate tax rate in the 10 European Union countries in that region is just 21 percent. The average rate across all 25 EU countries is 27 percent. The corporate rate of 32 percent proposed by the Bush panel doesn’t pass muster in today’s competitive world economy.

For individuals, both of the panel’s plans have highly graduated structures with four rates. The panel rejected the principle that people should be treated equally under the law with a single tax rate, and it endorsed the highly skewed distribution of the current tax burden. Even if the panel didn’t want a single rate, it should have settled on a simple two-rate structure, as in the 1986 reform.

Looking ahead, the White House should improve the panel’s plans before sending them to Congress. For both plans, the corporate rate should be cut to 25 percent and individual rates cut to 15 and 25 percent. That structure would provide world-class simplicity and efficiency, and would take a big step toward a Forbes-style flat tax.

Would the plans still be “revenue neutral” with these improvements, as required by the president? The way to find out would be to score them with a dynamic model that took into account the increased economic growth from reform. We know, for example, that corporate rate cuts cost the government only about half of what the static methods used by the panel suggest.

Furthermore, the panel’s baseline to judge revenue neutrality is too high. The panel proposes to repeal the alternative minimum tax, but it assumes that new revenues should replace the expected explosion in future AMT receipts. Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, has already criticized the panel on this point. He is calling for the tax reform baseline to exclude rising AMT revenues. That would pave the way for a more attractive lower-rate reform package.

The panel’s plans include many needed fixes. They illustrate how we can make our awful federal tax code simpler and more efficient. But policymakers should be more aggressive in responding to global trends and cutting marginal tax rates further than the tax panel has proposed.

Chris Edwards is director of tax policy at the Cato Institute and author of Downsizing the Federal Government, to be published by the Cato institute in November.