Reining in the deficit

Three ways to commit "pay as you go" rules on the Bush tax cuts

Alex Brandon/AP/File
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., left and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., take part in a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington last year to discuss proposals to continue the Bush era tax cuts.

Just had to “tweet” that! Mainly wanted to combine a complaint about the rain and a link to my Tax Notes column (reprinted on the Concord Coalition site, here) that argues that the first easy thing the debt limit deal’s “super committee” could do is commit to strict pay-as-you-go rules on the Bush tax cuts–and on other expiring tax cuts and on spending as well, by the way, but the biggest difference this would make in on tax policy.

Committing to pay-go rules on the Bush tax cuts wouldn’t be so hard in terms of making tax policy. I explain in my column that there are three main ways we could get there–each with their economic and political pros and cons:

1. Do Nothing. Allow all expiring tax cuts to expire as specified under current law. That would mean reverting to Clinton-era marginal tax rates. (Hmmm, what was so bad about those tax rates for our economy?)

2. Do It Big. Extend some or all of the marginal tax rates under the Bush tax cuts, but fully offset the costs of extending the low rates by broadening the tax base and reducing some tax expenditures (for example, limiting itemized deductions or reducing the exclusion of employer-provided health benefits). This is the fundamental tax reform approach.

3. Do It to the Rich. Extend some or all of the Bush tax cuts — particularly those that affect middle-income taxpayers (lower tax rates, child tax credit, marriage penalty relief) — and fully offset the costs by imposing an extra tax on the very rich, such as a surtax on households with incomes in excess of $1 million.

I admit that’s still not as easy as rain, but it’s also far easier than the super committee having to do full-blown fundamental tax reform within the next few months. And not being able to do all of fundamental tax reform right now isn’t a reason to avoid committing to a budget rule that would encourage smart and fiscally-responsible tax reform in the future.

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