House Republicans under Speaker Paul Ryan are set to unveil a plan for an ambitious tax reform Friday, one that would aim to restore business competitiveness while lowering tax rates while at the same time avoiding some of the political traps that have bedeviled previous GOP tax efforts in recent years.
The proposal, to be introduced Friday morning at the Capitol by Ryan as part of the House pre-election agenda, would satisfy the overriding conservative priority of lowering tax rates: The top individual income tax rate would be lowered from 39.6 percent to 33 percent. The corporate tax rate would fall from 35 percent to 20 percent, slightly below the average for advanced economies.
Those tax rate reductions would not cost the government revenues, according to a Republican leadership aide who previewed the plan for reporters Thursday. Republicans would pay for the rate cuts by broadening the tax base, meaning that they would eliminate many of the credits, deductions and other tax breaks that exist today.
In a departure from the past tax reform effort guided by former Ways and Means Committee chairman Dave Camp, they would also shift that tax base from taxing income, as the code does today, toward taxing consumption. Economists generally believe that taxing consumption, rather than income or savings, is more efficient.
The shift away from taxing savings would be accomplished, mostly, by lowering taxes on investment income, such as capital gains, while taxing businesses more on cash flow. Republicans framed the change as a move toward a more "bold" reform.
In doing so, Republicans hope for a plan that would create incentives for more work and investment while also not, on paper, busting the budget.
"Americans have made it clear that they want us to deliver bold, pro-growth tax reform that will improve lives and increase opportunity," Ways and Means Committee chairman Kevin Brady, the top tax-writer in the House who will be in charge of filling in many of the plan's details, said in a statement. "Our Blueprint will deliver a tax code built for growth -- the growth of jobs, the growth of paychecks, and the growth of our economy."
Additionally, Republicans hope to dramatically simplify the tax code and overhaul the IRS, making it much more friendly to taxpayers, appealing to voters with the prospect of figuring out their taxes on a postcard.
The plan is to entice businesses, too, not just with lower tax rates but with a simpler system, including a revamped system of international taxation that will remove the pressures currently pushing U.S. corporations to move their headquarters outside of the country.
Like other Republican plans, however, the House GOP proposal will incur the political risk that goes along with tax rate reductions that will result in major tax cuts on high incomes.
In fact, liberal critics were already criticizing Republicans on that score Thursday, based on rumors and suggestions about the plan. "The Ryan tax plan will overwhelmingly benefit the wealthy," warned Frank Clemente, the executive director of the group Americans for Tax Fairness.
Aware of that downside, Republicans have structured their plan to avoid adding to the deficit or raising lower-income families' taxes. Although Ryan, for himself, has downplayed concerns about the distributional effects in favor of incentivizing growth through low taxes, calling such worries a "ridiculous notion" in March, the plan aims to avoid untoward distributional outcomes.
"There is going to be no tax increase on middle-income people to pay for a tax cut on millionaires," said a top Republican leadership aide. "That will not happen. No income group will have higher taxes as a group than they have now."
If certain numbers in the plan have to be "tweaked" to ensure that everyone gets a tax cut in the plan, he added, they will be.
At other times, Republicans have run into trouble for neglecting such considerations. In 2012, for example, President Obama was able to campaign against the Romney-Ryan tax plan on the grounds that it could raise middle class taxes to pay for high-end tax cuts.
Similarly, a priority for the Ryan plan will be that it will not add to the deficit, the aide said.
Just what counts as adding to the deficit, however, is tricky, and Democrats won't accept Republicans' definition.
The GOP goal will be to achieve "deficit neutrality" when the effects of the tax revenues that would come along with faster economic growth are taken into account. Such "dynamic analyses" of tax plans are now the norm in the House for major legislation, thanks to a rule instituted by the GOP majority. Democrats will criticize the use of dynamic analysis as an excuse to cut taxes without paying for them.
To make the math add up, Republicans will also consider certain temporary tax cuts that are extended regularly, including some renewable energy-related ones, permanent. Under scoring conventions, that will mean that they won't have to make up those revenues, which could amount to hundreds of billions. Lastly, Republicans will also assume away the tax hikes instituted as part of Obamacare, on the grounds that the House GOP task force on health care will aim to repeal those tax hikes and offset them with spending cuts. Those choices will be bound to stoke criticism that the tax reform will cost the Treasury.
Nevertheless, the target of revenue neutrality on a dynamic basis is one that Brady has aimed for all along. It is vastly different, however, from the tax plan proposed by the Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump, which outside groups have estimated would lose $10 trillion in revenue or more over 10 years.
The cost is one of many differences Ryan will have to sort out with Trump, whom he has reluctantly endorsed. A Republican leadership aide acknowledged that there would be issues to sort out, as there would have been with any nominee.
Here are more details about the plan:
House Republicans would replace the existing seven income tax brackets with three rates: 12 percent, 25 percent, and 33 percent.
They would repeal the alternative minimum tax.
Taxes on investment would be significantly lowered. Families would be able to deduct half of investment income from taxation, meaning that capital gains, dividends and interest income would be taxed at 6 percent, 12.5 percent and 16.5 percent, depending on the tax bracket. This provision, intended to spur savings and investment, would cut taxes mostly for high earners, who earn the vast majority of capital gains.
The existing standard deductions and personal exemptions would be wrapped into one larger standard deduction: $24,000 for married individuals filing jointly, $18,000 for single individuals with a child in the household, and $12,000 for other individuals. The child tax credit would also be simplified and preserved. Also, the earned income tax credit, the refundable credit that subsidizes work for low-income families, would be kept.
Other breaks would be at risk, however. The popular deductions for mortgage interest and charitable giving would be kept in some form, although they might be reformed to make them less tilted toward wealthy families. Tax-privileged retirement plans, such as 401(k)s, would also be spared, as would a simplified college savings plan.
All other breaks, however, would be on the chopping block. Most notably, the deduction for state and local taxes would be eliminated — effectively a tax hike on blue states.
Republicans carve out a special treatment for the majority of businesses, especially small businesses, that file through the individual side of the tax code. Such "pass-throughs" would only pay a 25 percent tax rate, although owner-operators would still pay the top rate of 33 percent on the equivalent of their salaries. Legislation introduced by Rep. Vern Buchanan of Florida would be the basis for ensuring that outcome.
For corporations, the rate cut from 35 percent to 20 percent would be the largest corporate tax rate cut in U.S. history. They decided to go that low because "there's a view among Republicans that 25 percent is not good enough anymore," the aide said.
Gone would be the complex systems that businesses use today to estimate how much depreciation of assets like machines or land they can write off in a given year. Instead, they would simply write off investments the year they were made.
The result would push the system closer to taxing businesses based on money in minus money out each year, rather than trying to gauge how much investments and future earnings might be worth.
As with the individual side, the vast array of special breaks littering the corporate tax code would be eliminated, although the GOP would keep a credit for research and development.
One longtime goal of Republicans is to end the unusual U.S. practice of taxing corporations on their income earned overseas. Instead, there would be a "territorial" system, meaning that income earned by foreign subsidiaries and brought back to the U.S. wouldn't be taxed by the Treasury. The $2 trillion-plus currently unrepatriated, however, would face a one-time tax of 8.75 percent for cash, and 3.5 percent for earnings reinvested overseas.
Also, the plan would tax corporate income on a destination basis, meaning that goods and services sold outside the country will not be taxed regardless of where they are produced, and goods and services sold in the U.S. will be.
That change, the aide said, would completely eliminate the pressure for U.S. companies to seek to move their headquarters outside the country. In increasing numbers in recent years, businesses have relocated their headquarters through so-called inversions, aiming to escape the high U.S. corporate tax rate on overseas income and access unrepatriated cash. With the low corporate tax rate, territorial system and destination-based system, however, they gain no advantages by doing so.