Why the new $450,000 income threshold is a political fiction.
WSJ Editorial, January 4, 2013
Anyone still need a reason to abandon "grand bargains" and deals negotiated between this President and GOP Congressional leaders? Here it is: The revival of two dormant provisions of the tax code means the much ballyhooed $450,000 income threshold for the highest tax rate is largely fake.
The two provisions are the infamous PEP and Pease, which aficionados of stealth tax increases will recognize immediately as relics of the 1990 tax increase. Those measures, which limit deductions and exemptions for higher-income taxpayers, expired in 2010. The Obama tax bill revived them this week. It isn't going to be pretty.
Under the new law, some of the steepest tax increases may fall on upper-middle class earners with incomes just above $250,000. Here's why:
During the negotiations, the White House won a concession from Republicans to allow phaseouts for personal exemptions and limitations on itemized deductions, starting at an income of $250,000 for individuals and $300,000 for joint filers.
The Senate Finance Committee informs us that in effect the loss of the personal exemptions, currently $3,800 per family member, can mean a 4.4 percentage point rise in the marginal tax rate for a married couple with two kids and incomes above $250,000. A family with four kids in that income range faces about a six percentage point marginal rate hike. The restored limitations on itemized deductions can raise the tax rate by another one percentage point.
High-income Americans with incomes of more than $1 million may lose up to 80% of their itemized deductions for home mortgage payments, health care, state and local taxes—and charities. Cue the local symphony's development office.
Add it together and families in the 33% tax bracket could see their effective marginal rate paid on each additional dollar earned rise to above 38%.
A store manager married to a dentist with a combined income of, say, $350,000 may pay a higher tax rate under the new law than if the tax code had simply reverted back to the Clinton-era rates that Mr. Obama championed. Those earning more than $450,000 would see their de facto tax rate rise to about 41% under the new law, not 39.6%. Add in the new ObamaCare investment taxes and the tax rate on interest income is close to 45%.
How did this happen? Recall that early in the fiscal-cliff negotiations House Speaker John Boehner offered to cap itemized deductions to raise $800 billion, in lieu of raising tax rates, if the President would agree to spending cuts. The White House rejected that.
Mr. Obama then insisted on reviving PEP and Pease, thereby recapturing much of the income he claimed to be "compromising" away by agreeing to a higher income threshold for the top bracket. But instead of using phaseouts to offset higher rates as Mitt Romney proposed, Mr. Obama insisted on raising tax rates too.
Democrats are advertising the higher $400,000-$450,000 threshold as a victory for affluent taxpayers in blue states. But with PEP and Pease these Democrats are hammering their own constituents via the backdoor.
Taxpayers in blue states claim roughly twice as much in itemized deductions as those in red states. Income tax rates are steeper in California and New York than Texas and Utah. Chuck Schumer just put a tax bull's-eye on upper-income Manhattanites, and Barbara Boxer whacked Silicon Valley. Some $150 billion, about one-quarter of all the money raised by this tax bill, will come from this stealth tax hike.
Mr. Obama purports this is merely "a return to the Clinton-era tax rates." But capital-gains rates will be about three to five percentage points higher than in the 1990s, the Medicare tax is higher, and his stealth tax will raise personal rates higher than advertised. Forget the golden Clinton memories. Mr. Obama is pushing the U.S. back to the Carter era.
A version of this article appeared January 5, 2013, on page A14 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Stealth Tax Hike.