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Romney the tax simplifier

His proposal to streamline the tax code and reduce rates would benefit the wealthy, while lower- and middle-income Americans would probably pay more.

August 02, 2012
  • White House hopeful Mitt Romney speaks at a small-business roundtable discussion in Costa Mesa.
White House hopeful Mitt Romney speaks at a small-business roundtable… (Frederic J. Brown / AFP /…)

Politicians on both sides of the partisan divide want to simplify the federal tax code by pruning the thicket of loopholes, exemptions and credits. In fact, President Obama and his presumptive Republican opponent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, have both promised to seek tax simplification if elected in November. A new study by three fiscal policy experts, however, shows that if simplification is coupled with a deep cut in rates, as Romney has proposed, lower- and middle-income Americans would have to pay more in taxes just to keep the same amount of revenue flowing into the Treasury. That's because the necessary reduction in exemptions, deductions and credits would more than offset the savings from the lower rates.

There are compelling reasons to simplify the tax code, such as reducing tax-avoidance trickery and lowering compliance costs. On the other hand, the complexity stems in part from tax breaks that are widely enjoyed, including the deduction for mortgage interest and the exemption for employee health benefits. And despite the broad support for simplification, the parties are sharply split over whether Congress should use the proceeds to reduce the deficit or lower tax rates.

Romney has proposed to reduce rates by 20%, eliminate the alternative minimum tax, end the estate tax and give lower- and middle-income families a larger tax break for investment income. He's also said, however, that his tax plan would not increase the deficit. So to offset the cost of the tax cuts, he has proposed to curtail unspecified tax breaks for individuals.

COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS: Presidential Election 2012

The study by the Tax Policy Center — a joint effort by the centrist Brookings Institution and the liberal Urban Institute think tanks — estimates that individual tax exemptions, deductions and credits would have to be reduced by as much as two-thirds to cover the $360-billion annual cost of Romney's tax cuts. Because those breaks are significantly more valuable to low- and middle-income families than Romney's proposed tax cuts would be, the authors conclude, the Romney plan's benefits would accrue mainly to the wealthy, and its costs to everybody else.

The Romney campaign and the right-of-center Tax Foundation argue that the new study underestimates the economic growth that would be spurred by Romney's plan to lower individual and corporate tax rates and cut federal spending. That growth would help pay for the tax cuts, allowing lawmakers to keep a larger percentage of the individual tax breaks while still bringing in the same amount of revenue. But even the Tax Foundation acknowledged that Romney's approach would make the tax code less progressive, shifting some of the burden from the wealthy onto low- and middle-income taxpayers. If nothing else, the Tax Policy Center study should make lawmakers more conscious of the potential winners and losers in tax simplification as they debate changes in the tax code over the coming months. And in the meantime, Romney should reveal more details of his tax plan so that voters of more modest means can see what they stand to lose.

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