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Robert Samuelson | The Death of Tax Reform





For Obama, the obsession with raising top rates (from today’s 33 percent and 35 percent to 36 percent and 39.6 percent) seems an exercise in political symbolism. He wants to be seen as vanquishing the rich — and Republicans. Otherwise, why not accept Boehner’s means (loophole closing) to achieve his policy ends (higher taxes on the rich)?

The White House claims that loophole closing can’t raise enough revenues. This is bogus. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center has estimated that capping all itemized deductions at $17,000 for couples and $8,500 for singles would produce $1.7 trillion in added taxes over a decade. To be sure, there would be practical problems; some tax increases would fall on households under Obama’s income thresholds of $250,000 for couples and $200,000 for singles. But these could be managed with adequate political will.

Unfortunately, it’s missing. The itemized deductions most threatened would include those for charitable contributions, interest on home mortgages and state and local taxes. Howls would come from affected groups: churches, universities, hospitals (the charitable deduction); builders, real estate brokers and mortgage bankers (the mortgage interest deduction); and state and local governments (the tax deduction). Obama seems unwilling to spend his political capital opposing these groups.

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