Biden tax-hike proposals face bumpy road ahead

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President-elect Joe Biden and congressional Democrats have signaled plans to raise taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations, but significant hurdles remain even with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.

This month’s Democratic sweep of Senate runoffs in Georgia, giving Democrats control of the Senate for the first time since 2014, increases the odds of tax proposals advancing through Congress. However, slim margins in both the House and the Senate mean enacting tax increases will prove challenging.

“Getting them to agree on a legislative proposal will not be easy,” said Jorge Castro, a former congressional aide and counselor to the IRS commissioner during the Obama administration who now works on tax law at Miller & Chevalier.

Biden’s campaign tax proposals included rolling back President Trump’s 2017 tax-cut law for taxpayers with income above $400,000, taxing capital gains at the same rates as ordinary income for people with income above $1 million and raising the corporate tax rate from 21 percent to 28 percent.

Democrats broadly think that wealthy people and corporations are not paying enough in taxes. A debate over how best to raise taxes on the rich was front and center during the Democratic presidential primary, with some Democratic candidates, such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), taking more aggressive positions than Biden and calling for a wealth tax.

The odds of any tax increases on the wealthy went up after Democrats won the Georgia runoffs. The victories will give Democrats and Republicans each 50 seats in the Senate, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris having the ability to break ties.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the incoming chairman of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, said on a call with reporters Wednesday that raising taxes on the wealthy and businesses was among his priorities.

Wyden in 2019 released a proposal to tax high-income people’s investment gains annually rather than when the investments are sold. He said he plans to do further work on this proposal.

“If you are a nurse in America taking care of COVID patients, you don’t get to defer paying your taxes. But if you’re a billionaire, you can defer, defer, defer some more and then pretty much never pay any taxes at all,” he said. “My plan would put a stop to that.”

Wyden also said he wants to roll back “corporate tax giveaways” in Trump’s 2017 law as well as the cuts for high earners. Additionally, he said he wants to close the carried interest “loophole” that benefits investment-fund managers, and better target a tax deduction for income from noncorporate businesses created by Trump’s law.

Biden, however, does not appear to be in a rush to push through his revenue-raising campaign proposals. Instead, he is focusing on immediate coronavirus relief legislation, with provisions aimed at decreasing taxes for low- and middle-income households. 

The $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief proposal that Biden unveiled Thursday did not include any tax increases but would provide for direct payments of $1,400 per person and would expand the earned income and child tax credits.

Biden also indicated he is willing to increase the deficit substantially at this time.

“It’s not just that smart fiscal investments, including deficit spending, are more urgent than ever,” Biden said Thursday. “It’s that the return on these investments — in jobs, in racial equity — will prevent long-term economic damage and the benefits will far surpass the costs.”

Biden did say, however, that he plans to pay for any “permanent investments” by making sure the wealthy pay their “fair share” of taxes and by doing away with tax breaks for companies that move jobs overseas. In the coming weeks, Biden is expected to unveil a proposal on infrastructure, manufacturing and clean energy.

When Democrats do decide to move ahead with tax legislation, they could face difficulties reaching an agreement on a package that would have enough support to pass.

Since Democrats will control both the House and the Senate, they will be able to use a process called budget reconciliation that would allow them to pass tax- and budget-related legislation with just a simple majority in the Senate rather than the 60 votes otherwise needed to advance bills. Republicans used the same process to pass the 2017 tax cut law.

But the 50-50 split in the Senate means every Democratic senator would need to support a tax-increase bill for it to pass if no Republicans are on board. Democrats also have a razor-thin majority in the House.

If Democrats want to pursue tax increases on the wealthy and businesses, they’ll have to craft a bill that can be supported by progressives such as Warren and Sanders and moderates such as Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

When Manchin first ran for Senate in 2010, he said he wouldn’t increase taxes during that rough economic time coming on the heels of the Great Recession. A spokesperson for the senator didn’t respond to an inquiry from The Hill on Thursday about Manchin’s current line of thinking on potential tax increases.

Mark Mazur, a former Obama administration Treasury Department official who now is director of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, noted that former President Obama, who had a bigger Senate majority than Biden will have, started his presidency in dismal economic times and as a result delayed rolling back his predecessor’s tax cuts for the wealthy until several years into his presidency, when the economy was further along in its recovery.

Mazur predicted that because of the narrow Democratic majorities, tax increases would be a “huge lift” even if lawmakers use the reconciliation process.

While there are some differences among Democrats about how best to raise taxes on the rich, the party was united in opposing Trump’s 2017 tax law and could find common ground rolling back those tax cuts for the wealthy.

Indivar Dutta-Gupta, co-executive director for the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality and a board member of the progressive group Tax March, said reversing Trump’s tax cuts for high-income households is one area where there’s broad agreement in the party.

“By and large, there’s a lot of unity among Democrats against the aspects of the Trump tax law that disproportionately go to the highest income households,” he said.

Tags Bernie Sanders corporate tax rate Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Joe Biden Joe Manchin Ron Wyden taxes wealthy Americans

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