Policy Analysis No. 536

Options for Tax Reform

Executive Summary

President Bush has established an advisory panel to study federal tax reform options. The panel is headed by former senators Connie Mack of Florida and John Breaux of Louisiana. Congressional leaders, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Tom Delay, have also pledged their support for reform.

Enacting a major tax reform bill will be a challenge, but the president has been remarkably successful with his tax agenda so far. Income tax rates have been reduced, dividend and capital gains taxes have been cut, and the tax rules on retirement savings vehicles have been liberalized.

However, the tax system remains terribly complex and inefficient. The number of pages of federal tax rules has increased 48 percent in the past decade. The complex alternative minimum tax will hit about 35 million households by the end of the decade if not repealed. The high-rate U.S. corporate income tax is under growing pressure as global investment capital has become more mobile.

This study looks at possible changes to address those problems. It identifies three goals for tax reform: simplification, efficiency, and limited government. The latter goal focuses on tax code features such as visibility and equal treatment that cultivate an understanding of the high cost of government.

This study examines reform options including a flat tax, a national retail sales tax, and a savings-exempt tax in reference to those goals. It also proposes a new option: a “dual-rate income tax.” This revenue-neutral option would convert the individual income tax to a two-rate system that eliminates most deductions and credits and allows nearly all families to pay tax at a low 15 percent rate. A 27 percent rate would kick in for earnings above $90,000 (single) and $180,000 (married).

To promote growth, the maximum individual rate on dividends, interest, and capital gains would be 15 percent. The corporate tax rate would be dropped to 15 percent and interest made non-deductible. These changes would equalize and cut the combined top income and payroll tax rates on wages, dividends, interest, and small business income to just under 30 percent, compared with between 35 and 45 percent under current law.

The dual-rate tax plan would retain the standard deduction, an expanded personal exemption, and the earned income tax credit. The plan would create a simpler and more efficient taxcode within the structure of today’s system and may be just the type of tax plan that the president’s advisory panel is looking for.

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Chris Edwards is director of tax policy studies at the Cato Institute.