Reform 2.0 – Some Passing Thoughts on S.B. 2687

Senator Ted Cruz has introduced S.B. 2687, described as a bill “to make permanent the individual tax rates in effect for taxable years 2018 through 2025.”  Speculation about the success of the effort has run the gamut (see here and here), but after last year’s holiday surprise, the new bill, which would lock in rate gains across the board, merits a quick read-through.  It is possible that Congress would pass this bill or a similar one. With the legislature having made corporate rate cuts permanent and individual rate cuts temporary, individual members may be motivated to respond to constituents’ distributive justice-based criticisms.

Notably, S.B. 2687 would make the increased estate tax exemption—previously $5 million, now $10 million—permanent.  Given that this Congressional love letter to the wealthy is paid for by permanently eliminating deductions for things like health care expenses, it might be a wish-list item for Republicans to use as a bargaining chip.  It affects a vanishingly small number of constituents, and allowing Democrats to win on this front might be face-saving enough to swing a vote or two.

Most of the proposed legislation is business as usual though.  The bill would, as advertised, make the new personal income tax rate cuts permanent.  It would permanently repeal the personal exemption and miscellaneous itemized deductions, and it would continue to limit the home mortgage interest deduction and the deduction for state and local taxes.  As I previously have written, repeal of the personal exemption might adversely affect large and non-traditional families, a possibility that the original reform and Senator Cruz’s subsequent effort would mitigate (but not eliminate) by doubling the child tax credit.  For more on that, see Shannon Weeks McCormack’s article here.

A couple of miscellaneous provisions in the bill are worth mentioning (and here, I am not claiming to be comprehensive).  The first would permanently restrict deduction of moving expenses under IRC § 217 to members of the armed forces who relocate in connection with active duty.  As long as we are re-upping this provision for Congressional consideration, why not add Americorp and Teach for America to it?  Moving allowances for these programs may not cover all of the participant’s cost, but like members of the armed forces, participants move on assignment in service to their country.  Adding Americorp and Teach for America to section 217 likely will not cost much—these young people don’t have high incomes, so their deductions are proportionately smaller— and their inclusion in section 217 signals the importance of their public service.  Our laws embody our values, and allowing the moving expense deduction for Americorps and Teach for America participants would more broadly express the government’s vision of personal sacrifice for the public good.

A second interesting provision of S.B. 2687 is permanent repeal of IRC § 132(f)’s exclusion for qualified bicycle commuting expense reimbursements.  Is it just me, or is this narrow repeal sort of peculiar?  From a nudge perspective, the exemption seems like a net good.  Biking is expensive, and people on the margins otherwise might choose to drive, causing pollution and diseases associated with a sedentary lifestyle.  On the other hand, we all know that in most cities, only the truly committed bike to work.  It’s dangerous; it requires a lot of gear and a funny hat; and at the other end, despite what people may tell you, you need a shower.  Cyclists don’t need a tax incentive; they are impervious to people who swear at them from the passing lane, and they will bike whether we pay them to or not.  In fact, the market appears to be so inelastic that Oregon taxes bicycles.  Maybe the fringe benefit for cyclists is not warranted on behavioral grounds.  But even if the section 132 allowance doesn’t change anyone’s behavior, allow me to park a final question in this spot.  Why single out this one small piece of the Code for elimination when, perhaps, all of section 132 is due for a tune-up?

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IU Tax Policy Colloquium: Brooks, “The Case for Incrementalism in Tax Reform”

By: Leandra Lederman

IMG_4287a
Left to right: Jake Brooks, Leandra Lederman, Bill Popkin, David Gamage, Tim Riffle

On February 1, the Indiana University Maurer School of Law welcomed Prof. Jake Brooks from Georgetown Law School as the second speaker of the year in our Tax Policy Colloquium. Jake presented an early draft of a paper titled “The Case for Incrementalism in Tax Reform,” which led to a lively and interesting discussion about what incrementalism is, what constitutes fundamental reform, how politics may affect the making of tax policy, and whether and how tax law differs from other fields of law.

The paper, which is not yet publicly available, argues that “fundamental tax reform,” while sometimes necessary, should not generally be the goal of tax policy, and that instead, policymakers should take an incremental approach to changing tax laws. “Incrementalism” has a long history in political science, and was first described by Charles Lindblom in an influential 1959 article, “The Science of Muddling Through.” In general, Lindblom’s approach in that article was to reject the urge to use a formal method that involves clarifying the principal goals up front, identifying the means to achieve them, and then analyzing every relevant factor in the decision. Lindblom instead advocated the use of a more casual method that he termed “successive limited comparisons,” which ignored important possible outcomes or alternatives and did not involve distinguishing means and ends. (Page 81 of Lindblom.) Lindblom argued that this “muddling through” approach was not only what was actually practiced by administrators, but also a method for which they need not apologize because administrators are less likely to make serious and lasting mistakes if they proceed through small, incremental changes (pp.86-87). As Jake acknowledges, Lindblom wrote at a time with much more limited ability to model and process large quantities of empirical data. He notes that incrementalism has continued to be an important theory in the literature. Despite technological advances, we cannot see the future, and there remain limits to what empirical data can help us predict.

Jake’s argument is driven in part by arguments in favor of tearing the Internal Revenue Code out by its roots and starting over. I agree with Jake that such an approach seems extremely risky. Policy driven by rhetoric and “horror stories” risks being ill-conceived, hasty, driven by political rent-seeking, and even destructive, as I have written about in the context of IRS reform. But does that necessarily mean that legislative tax changes should take a Lindblom-style incremental approach? Continue reading “IU Tax Policy Colloquium: Brooks, “The Case for Incrementalism in Tax Reform””

The Expanded Child Tax Credit Is an Imperfect Replacement for Personal Exemptions

By Sam Brunson

Picture courtesy of Pixabay. Used under a CC0 1.0 Universal license. (It’s surprisingly hard to find a picture of a family of five without copyright restrictions!)

The conference tax bill follows both the House and the Senate bills in drastically increasing the standard deduction (from current law’s $13,000 in 2018 to $24,000). At the same time, it gets rid of personal exemptions. As Stephanie Hoffer pointed out eight months ago, eliminating personal exemptions would essentially increase taxes on families of four or more people; the more children a family had, the bigger its tax increase.

To fix that problem, the bill doubles the child tax credit from $1,000 to $2,000 per child. In addition, to get Marco Rubio’s vote, the bill provides that up to $1,400 of each child tax credit is refundable.

So do the child tax credits alleviate the problem of eliminating personal exemptions? Sometimes. Continue reading “The Expanded Child Tax Credit Is an Imperfect Replacement for Personal Exemptions”

Potential Effects of Tax Reform on Work (Guest Posts @ On Labor Blog)

Shu-Yi Oei

Diane Ring and I were invited to write a guest post for the On Labor blog, to explain the potential effects of tax reform on work arrangements for a labor law audience. There was some interest in tax reform among labor law experts in light of the New York Times article that ran on December 9, titled “Tax Plans May Give Your Co-Worker a Better Deal Than You.”

We wrote a pair of posts, describing the potential effects of tax reform on work arrangements (including decisions to form a passthrough or to classify oneself as an independent contractor).

Something that struck us in our attempt to translate the policy issues for a non-tax legal audience was the sheer complexity of some of the new provisions in the new proposed provisions and the difficulty of discussing them with integrity–maintaining nuance, not oversimplifying or being hyperbolic, but still being understandable. As others have noted, the creation of the proposed tax legislation and the subsequent commentary on it have both happened very quickly. Our attempt to explain clearly the proposed legislative provisions to a non-tax legal audience and to discuss the policy issues at stake really highlighted for us the complexity of these proposed laws, the policy pitfalls, and the perils of operating at high speed.

In any case, here are the posts:

Work-Related Distortions in the Tax Reform Bills: Understanding the New Proposed Provisions (Part 1 of 2)

…The goal of this two-part blog post is to summarize for a labor law audience how the proposed tax legislation creates these outcomes and to highlight the important policy issues that observers and commentators might be concerned about. This Part 1 focuses on the statutory provisions, and Part 2 will discuss the key policy conversations that are taking place….

Work-Related Distortions in the Proposed Tax Bills: Understanding the Policy Conversations (Part 2 of 2)

This post follows up on our prior post, which focused on the complex provisions of the proposed Senate tax bill. This post discusses some of the key concerns that have been expressed about the new tax bill. (Again, we focus here on the Senate version of the proposed legislation. The specifics of the analysis may change once we get the Conference version, though the broader policy and design questions are likely to persist.)

 

Tax Reform, Tuition Waivers, and Economic Mobility

By Michael Austin and Sam Brunson

“Before any great things are accomplished, a memorable change must be made in the system of education and knowledge must become so general as to raise the lower ranks of society nearer to the higher. The education of a nation instead of being confined to a few schools and universities for the instruction of the few, must become the national care and expense for the formation of the many.”—John Adams

There has been much ado recently (including on Surly) about the fact that the current version of tax reform before the House of Representatives repeals Section 117(d) of the Internal Revenue Code. As a general rule, you have to pay taxes on anything of value your employer gives you. Section 117(d) is an exception to this rule; among other things, it exempts graduate students from paying taxes on tuition waivers. With that subsection excised from the Code, graduate students would be taxed on tuition waivers that they receive (usually in addition to a very modest stipend) when they worked as teaching and research assistants as part of their program.

If this repeal were to become law, students without personal or family resources would have a very difficult time pursuing graduate education. But while the plight of graduate students has gotten huge amounts of attention, it is not the worst thing about the repeal of Section 117(d). Continue reading “Tax Reform, Tuition Waivers, and Economic Mobility”

Some Tax Reform Links and Tweets over at #BLPB

Ann Lipton at Business Law Profs Blog has assembled a nice collection of links to news commentary and tweets about the House tax bill.

Many of the links Ann has assembled look at the industry and deal-specific impacts of the tax bill…For example, potential effects on LBOs, sports stadium financing, future of stock options, higher education, and homebuilders.  A nice complement to the more ubiquitous analyses of revenue effects, scoring, and distributional estimates we’re seeing on the tax prof/economists side. This information about who is likely to feel what effects gives us some insights into how the politics/political economy of this tax reform is likely to unfold going forward. Well worth a click.

The GOP Tax Plan and Divorce

By Sam Brunson

CC BY-SA 3.0 Nick Youngson

Well, it has finally arrived. This morning, the House GOP gave us a 426-page bill (and an 82-page section-by-section summary).

There’s a lot going on here, and it’s hard to say how much attention we should pay. After all, now lobbyists, Democrats, and interest groups can read the bill and start arguing against (or for) it. Moreover, this is just the House; the Senate still has to release its bill,[fn1] which may differ substantially. And the fact that we have a bill doesn’t in any way indicate that (a) it will be enacted, or (b) the enacted law will look anything like the bill.

Still, we have a bill! Continue reading “The GOP Tax Plan and Divorce”

How Will Trump’s Tax Plan Affect Middle-Income Families?

By Stephanie Hoffer, @profhoffer

The President’s one-page tax plan, released on Wednesday, claims that it will “[p]rovide relief to American families – especially middle income families.”  Whether tax reform eventually lives up to the President’s claim, though, will depend on how he and the Congress choose to address not only tax rates and the standard deduction, but also the personal exemption and credits related to children and dependents.

Like the Republican blueprint for tax reform, the President’s plan would double the standard deduction while trimming itemized deductions.  It also would expand the credit for child and dependent care, although the plan doesn’t specify how.

Notably, the Republican proposal would eliminate personal exemptions provided by § 151, which allow a deduction of $4,050 per dependent in 2017.  Dependents include a taxpayer’s spouse, children, and other members of the household who rely family support.   Although the repeal of § 151 was not specifically mentioned in the President’s proposal, the President and Congress must reach consensus on how to reduce the cost of tax reform.  Eliminating personal exemptions in favor of an expanded standard deduction may be an approach on which both could agree, but it may not be good policy. Continue reading “How Will Trump’s Tax Plan Affect Middle-Income Families?”

Trump’s Back-to Basics Tax Plan: It’s Tremendous!

Aren’t we all wondering what President Trump’s big tax reform announcement will be tomorrow?  Loyola Los Angeles Tax LL.M. student Anosh Ali ventured a tongue-in-cheek guess in a short memo he wrote in Katie Pratt’s Tax Policy class.  We’ll see tomorrow how good a prognosticator Anosh is. 

Until then, at least we know that his Presidential ‘voice’ is spot on


TO:         President Trump

FROM:   Anosh Ali, White House Communications Specialist

RE:         Your tax reform press conference on Wednesday

DATE:    April 25, 2017

_____________________________________________________________________________________

You have asked me to prepare talking points for your tax reform press conference tomorrow. This memo includes general talking points and responses to hostile questions you are likely to get from the liberal media. Continue reading “Trump’s Back-to Basics Tax Plan: It’s Tremendous!”