Crunch time for Republicans seeking tax code rewrite

Crunch time for Republicans seeking tax code rewrite
© Greg Nash

It’s crunch time for Republicans as they work toward releasing legislation to overhaul the tax code — a key priority to deliver after their failure to repeal ObamaCare. 

The White House and congressional Republicans issued a nine-page tax framework in late September, and the House and Senate saw movement on their budget measures in recent days.

Once a budget resolution is adopted, the next big step is for tax-writing committees to produce detailed bills, something lawmakers say could come sometime this month. And their goal is ambitious — to finish up before the end of the year.

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Tax writers have their work cut out for them. They’ll have to move from their blueprint of principles to legislative language to overhaul the U.S. tax code.

As they work, they’re facing pushback from lawmakers and lobbyists seeking to preserve tax provisions and breaks on the chopping block that lawmakers will need to trim to lower tax rates.

Here are five big issues Republicans face as they produce tax legislation.

How will they pay for tax rate cuts?

The Senate budget resolution that cleared through committee allows a tax bill to add up to $1.5 trillion of net tax cuts over 10 years, before accounting for economic growth. 

But even meeting that goal will be a challenge. The Tax Policy Center estimated the tax framework would cost $2.4 trillion over a decade, though Republicans have strongly blasted that analysis.

Already, one of the biggest revenue-raising provisions Republicans proposed is meeting resistance and looks likely to be scaled back. Repealing the state and local tax deduction would raise more than $1 trillion over a decade, but doing so is a political problem for GOP House members in high-tax states such as New York and California.

Republicans intend to eliminate many tax breaks that benefit special interests. But each of those breaks has a constituency that will lobby hard for their preference to be maintained.

How will lawmakers ensure a bill is focused on the middle class?

President Trump and congressional Republicans say a major goal is to provide tax relief for middle-class families. And the GOP’s tax framework calls for ensuring that a new tax system is at least as progressive as the current code.

Still, some of the changes Republicans have proposed, such as repealing the estate tax and the alternative minimum tax, would disproportionately benefit the wealthy.

The framework specifically sets three individual tax rates of 12, 25 and 35 percent, but also allows tax writers to propose a fourth rate, above 35 percent, for the highest earners. The current seven tax brackets range from 10 percent to 39.6 percent.

Taking advantage of the option for a fourth tax bracket would help to reduce a bill’s benefits for the wealthy. Additionally, The Wall Street Journal reported that several GOP senators are open to foregoing repeal of the estate tax.

The framework includes some provisions targeted to middle-class families, such as an expansion of the child tax credit. The exact size of the larger credit has yet to be determined, and the more generous it is, the more it could be beneficial for middle-income households.

How will lawmakers prevent tax cheating?

The tax framework does not address how specifically to prevent wealthy individuals and corporations from tax avoidance.

The blueprint would lower the top tax rate for income from so-called pass-through businesses — a category that includes sole proprietors and partnerships — to 25 percent. That’s down from the current top rate they pay of 39.6 percent.

The document calls for the tax-writing committees to “adopt measures to prevent the re-characterization of personal income into business income to prevent wealthy individuals from avoiding the top personal tax rate.”

Lawmakers will also have to develop rules to prevent businesses from shifting profits overseas, given the framework’s call for a “territorial” tax system that exempts dividends from American companies’ foreign subsidiaries from U.S. taxes. 

The framework calls for “taxing at a reduced rate and on a global basis the foreign profits of U.S. multinational corporations” — leading many tax experts to believe Republicans will propose some type of global minimum tax.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin BradyKevin Patrick BradyOvernight Health Care: Initial Senate tax bill doesn't repeal ObamaCare mandate | 600K sign up for ObamaCare in first four days | Feds crack down on opioid trafficking Overnight Finance: Senate GOP unveils different approach on tax reform | House tax bill heads to floor | House leaders eye vote next week | AT&T denies pressure for CNN sale GOP tax bill clears hurdle, heads to House floor MORE (R-Texas) has taken issue with the use of the global minimum tax term, but he said Thursday that the panel has been “making good progress” in the international tax area. 

How will Republicans satisfy competing interests in their party?

Divisions within the GOP conference doomed efforts to repeal ObamaCare, and Republicans want to prevent the same from killing their tax-reform efforts as well.

In a positive sign, both of the main groups of House conservatives, the Republican Study Committee and the House Freedom Caucus, have signed onto the framework. Still, there could be hurdles to achieving unity.

Several GOP House members from blue states have already said they would oppose a measure that repeal the state and local tax deduction. Deficit hawks have signaled concerns about measures that would lose federal revenue, while some conservatives have said their preference is for tax reform not to be revenue-neutral.

Once details emerge on which breaks will be trimmed or nixed, opposition will reach full steam. 

Will Republicans engage with Democrats?

Republicans have little margin for error if they want to pass a tax bill on a partisan basis, and collaborating with moderate Democrats could help to get legislation across the finish line. 

Trump and GOP lawmakers have had bipartisan meetings on taxes, but Democrats point out the framework was written by GOP leaders and that Republicans plan to move legislation through the Senate using a fast-track reconciliation process, which sidesteps the minority party’s ability to block it with a filibuster.

Some Democrats are actively pitching consensus.

The Blue Dog group of moderate Democrats put out a document highlighting some areas of consensus, like lowering corporate rates and simplification, but also noting areas of big differences, such as whether to use revenue estimates that take into account a bill's economic effects.

Republicans would likely have to make major changes to the framework to get any Democrats on board.