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Candidates Will Offer You The Moon With Tax Reform Because They Don't Have to Deliver

by Edgar Wilson, published
Tax reform is, on the surface, an area where virtually every presidential candidate (and lawmaker, for that matter) can agree: it is too complex, too riddled with loopholes, and desperately needs reform. Slightly more specifically, they still agree it needs to be simpler, and fairer.

Beyond that, however, the tricks and techniques they all suggest using to do right by America’s taxpayers vary widely — and not exclusively along party lines. In theory, then, it should be a very telling way to distinguish candidates in what could become a very crowded field.

In fact, (current) presidential candidate positions are almost entirely limited to theory, especially when it comes to holistic reform. The likelihood of any president — regardless of which party is in control of Congress — appreciably moving the tax system toward any alternative is severely hampered by the many vested interests preserving the current system.

At best, the president can hope to add a discount or penalty to the code, but when it comes to substantial reform, or the much-discussed (and much-needed) simplification of America’s system, any promises made are decidedly meaningless because unfulfillable.

Despite the odds, voters can expect some dynamic suggestions, made all the more captivating by the certain knowledge candidates have that no significant proposal is likely to survive congressional wrangling.

So, what are the highlights?

In the Republican primaries, expect to see as many (or more)

competing flat tax plans as candidates.

The flat tax concept is typical of Republican candidates, both announced and anticipated: Sen. Rand Paul, Gov. Rick Perry, and Sen. Ted Cruz support one (at different rates, of course), while Sen. Marco Rubio has previously argued that two rates — 15 percent and 35 percent -- are sufficiently fair.

Senator Ted Cruz from Texas was the first to announce, and he has a firm track record on taxation. He was a 2010 signatory to the Contract for America (along with fellow candidates Marco Rubio and Rand Paul), which proposes starting from scratch on the internal revenue code, and restricting its length to the word count of the U.S. Constitution.

More pointedly, Cruz promises to do for the IRS what his fellow Republicans (including Rand Paul) are trying to do for Obamacare: repeal and replace. That is, eliminate all traces of the current system — especially the IRS -- and replace it with something uncannily similar, but wearing a different name and the GOP seal of approval.

Cruz and the tea party, still wincing over the apparent targeting inflicted upon them by the IRS, want the organization scrapped. That’s fine, but even the most simple, postage-stamp-sized system of taxation (a key selling point in Cruz’s vision of a simpler filing system) will in fact need an oversight bureau, whatever acronym it bears. (As an aside: there has been little public outcry at the repeated suggestions by GOP leaders that America could benefit by putting more accountants out of work; perhaps they feel confident that such threats are empty?)

Rand Paul, while pointing to the need for simplicity and fairness is all for keeping the IRS and its team of tax professionals -- though in a diminished form -- reflecting his intent to implement a flat tax (he calls his plan the “EZ Tax”).

Paul has made similar proposals in the past, though it is likely he will leave himself some latitude to alter previous flat tax plans over the course of his campaign. In particular, he will need to explain how Social Security and personal income tax exemptions would be managed under his plan, lest lower-income Americans cry foul over losing the current progressive system.

Investment income, as well as estate and gift taxes, would be rendered tax-free — at least in previous iterations of his plan.

The other watchword in Republican tax plans is business — more specifically, attracting, promoting, and encouraging American businesses. Just after mentions of “fairness” and “simplicity,” the Republican candidates subscribe heavily to macroeconomic theories that suggest the federal government, by adjusting tax rates and programs, can spur the growth of business.

Whether through adjusting business tax rates or eliminating the current system wholesale, GOP accountants are putting a lot of faith in private businesses and major corporations to behave according to a specific set of rules, which involve making more profits and employing more people, raising national revenues even as effective rates are trimmed.

This union of math and psychology is a Republican mainstay dating back to Reagan, and one of the first priorities of the new Congress. However, its adoption has slowed even under the current majority in Congress due in part to Democrat resistance.

It is just as unlikely to see full-scale adoption under a Republican president as any other, given the fractured state of Congress — not that such pessimism will stop the candidates from detailing the merits of such policy.

Just as President Obama was

heralded as better because he was different following the second Bush administration, Republican platforms make a great show of how they will scrub Obama’s fingerprints from as much of the federal government as possible. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, has yet to designate which political target she wants to be measured against.

Her record in the Democratic primary against Obama has more platform suggestions than anything that has emerged in her current campaign to date. Her refusal to raise taxes on anyone earning less than $250,000 seems at least a tacit endorsement of the progressive scale. In fact, all of her commentary on taxes amounts to nudging existing rates up (capital gains, maybe) or down (for the middle class, broadly defined).

On the economy, as with so many issues, Clinton (perhaps pragmatically, perhaps cynically) takes a technical, slow and deliberate approach to reform. The singular exceptions — which could bear on potential tax proposals — are the Democrats’ pet projects of raising the minimum wage, and possibly anchoring it to the Consumer Price Index (CPI). However, Clinton has yet to attach herself entirely to any particular plan.

Democratic challengers to Clinton, though few, may try to aim left in other policy areas, but tend to endorse the progressive system when it comes to income taxes. Outside of increasing taxes on the wealthy and cutting them for everyone else, there are few signs of real innovation from the Democratic camp.

The bottom line: it is early. While firebrand candidates like Cruz and Paul have come out loudly in favor of specific plans, that is the essence of their brands, and unlikely to evolve over the course of the primaries.

Rubio, Clinton, and other calculating contenders are taking broad stabs at known issues without committing themselves -- the traditional dance of the candidate aiming to survive midterms without sacrificing opportunities to take more moderate positions in the general election.

The possibilities of what stances, platforms, and policy gimmicks will emerge over the course of the long electoral season up to and throughout 2016 is virtually unlimited. Ultimately, doesn't really matter who is president when it comes to tax law, because it takes more than one pen to strike out the hydra-like nuances of the American tax code.

If there is hope for reform, it lies in voters recognizing that their representatives -- not the president -- are the ones who need nudging.

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