House Republicans released major tax legislation Thursday after long months of negotiations and a few short days of frantic reworking, beginning the GOP attempt to hurry a bill to President Trump’s desk by the end of the year.
The roughly 400-page bill, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, largely hews to the framework for lowering tax rates that Trump and Republicans laid out in September. For the first time, however, it will allow legislators, lobbyists, and taxpayers to see the ugly tradeoffs the GOP will be forced to make.
"Today marks the beginning of the end of America’s broken tax code," said House Ways and Means Committee chairman Kevin Brady, the bill's author.
Yet it’s also a work in progress, as Brady intends to offer a revision of the bill before it is marked up in committee on Monday, the first of what will be a number of revisions if the bill advances.
Brady told reporters that the bill would be a $1.51 trillion net tax cut over 10 years.
In turning their lofty promises into legislative text, Republicans revealed not just the benefits but also many — but not all – the costs of tax reform, spelling out which groups and individuals would be losers.
"A rushed, partisan and secret process yielded over 400 pages of broken promises to middle-class families," said Massachusetts Democrat Richard Neal, Brady's counterpart on the committee. "This bill falls short of reform, falls short of middle-class tax relief and falls short of the fiscal principles to which Republicans have long held themselves."
The bill follows through on Republican promises to families to lower tax rates and nearly double the standard deduction.
"That is a very significant change in your life," said anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform.
The child tax credit would be raised from $1,000 to $1,600, and would be available to families earning up to $230,000, up from $110,000 today. The credit amount is below the $1,800 that Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has said would be necessary to maintain the value of the credit given recent inflation. But the bill also would include new $300 credit for non-child family members, a major new benefit. That tax break would expire after several years, however, a concession to budget realities and a bet that a future Congress will renew it.
Also, the bill would not increase the portion of the child tax credit that is "refundable," meaning that the government would send it as a check to taxpayers with no income tax liability.
Rubio immediately tweeted out that the credit was not large enough.
The existing seven income brackets would be consolidated and lowered to just four: 12 percent, 25 percent, 35 percent and 39.6 percent. The 12 percent bracket goes up to $90,000 in income. The 25 percent bracket goes from $90,000 to $260,000, and the 35 percent starts there and goes up to $1 million.
With those changes, the bill will provide a $1,182 tax cut to a family of four earning $59,000, House Republicans claimed.
"This plan is for the middle-class families in this country who deserve a break," House Speaker Paul Ryan said.
Yet it also contains a number of provisions to offset lost tax revenues. The bill must be limited to a $1.5 trillion net tax cut for budgetary reasons.
The most prominent compromise is that it maintains the top individual tax rate at 39.6 percent, although that rate would apply only to incomes of $1 million for couples, effectively creating a new "millionaires' bracket."
The brackets, too, would be calculated using a different gauge of inflation going forward, pushing more families into higher brackets over time.
Individuals would lose the ability to deduct many items they can today, such as medical expenses and student loan interest. And no longer would they be able to deduct state or local income or sales taxes. The mortgage interest deduction, available now for up to $1 million, would be limited to $500,000 for new homes.
The bill also reflects a last-minute deal brokered with blue-state Republicans to maintain deductions for state and local property taxes, but that break will be capped at $10,000.
The deal was necessary to gain the support of lawmakers such as New Jersey Rep. Tom MacArthur. But it was costly, requiring taxwriters to find offsets elsewhere in the tax code late in the drafting process.
Those changes are likely to invite major opposition from housing interests. The National Association of Realtors said it was still reviewing the bill, but that on a cursory reading it was concerned. "Eliminating or nullifying the tax incentives for homeownership puts home values and middle-class homeowners at risk," the group's president, William Brown, said in a statement.
The bill would accomplish the longtime conservative quest to eliminate the estate tax, which today only affects the very wealthy, as it only applies to bequests over roughly $11 million for couples. Yet the day of that achievement would be delayed for 2024, although the threshold for estates would immediately be doubled.
Corporations would get their statutory tax rate cut, from 35 percent to 20 percent. They would also, for five years, be allowed to immediately write off all new investments in equipment. But large businesses would lose some ability to deduct the cost of interest payments on debt, as well as other tax breaks.
As promised, the bill would create a new, special tax rate for partnerships, S-corporations, sole proprietorships and other businesses whose income passes through straight to individuals’ tax returns, rather than being taxed at the corporate level. Such pass-throughs would get a 25 percent tax rate, but would be subject to rules that would greatly add to the complexity of the code.
Democrats and tax experts have warned that the new special rate would invite gaming of the tax code. High-earning professionals, such as lawyers and doctors, could lower their top tax rate from 39.6 percent to the 25 percent rate if they claim that their salaries are in fact business income.
The concern is not an academic one. A similar split between the tax rates for individuals and pass-through business in Kansas led to professionals claiming that they were really small businesses. For instance, the coach of the University of Kansas’ men’s basketball team, routed most of his income through an LLC to take advantage of the special rate.
House Republicans aim to prevent such tax tricks by setting a rule: For pass-through businesses, 70 percent of income would be taxed as if it is labor, and 30 percent would be taxed as if it is business income, eligible for the 25 percent rate.
The National Federation of Independent Business immediately criticized the plan, with CEO Juanita Duggan saying that the "leaves too many small businesses behind." Small businesses have long expressed concerns that their members would not be able to compete with C-corporations that get corporate tax rate cuts.
Business owners, however, would be able to avoid the rule by opting instead to demonstrate that they are owners, not salary workers in disguise, by listing investments they have made in the business.
Also, guaranteed payments to individuals — which is what a salary is -- would mean that they would be limited from getting the special low rate.
Businesses got a major ask in terms of international taxation: The Treasury would no longer tax foreign earnings already taxed overseas.
The bill introduces new rules, though, to prevent companies from moving business to tax havens, where they could avoid taxes and then bring back those earnings into the U.S. tax-free. In particular, companies would face the 20 percent corporate tax rate on tax-haven earnings if they tried to shift income that really belonged in the U.S. to the tax haven. Unlike under today's code, those earnings would be taxable in the year they were earned.
The bill also contains other measures to prevent multinational corporations from shifting taxable income out of the U.S. and into tax havens by shuffling paper around. Originally, Ryan proposed to avoid such tax maneuvering via the border-adjusted corporate tax concept. But retailers and the Koch network of nonprofit groups successfully revolted against that idea, requiring the GOP to turn instead to complicated rules governing international taxation.
The estimated $2.6 trillion in foreign earnings currently held by corporations overseas would face a one-time tax on those profits. For earnings that have been reinvested overseas, that tax would be a 5 percent rate. For cash, it would be 12 percent.