Romney says Obama’s plan raises taxes on the middle class. Is he right?

August 17, 2012

An awful lot of campaign rhetoric distills down to the old schoolyard taunt, "No, you are!" For instance: The ongoing argument about Medicare takes as its base the Democrats' argument that Republicans, through the various Ryan budgets, have proposed major cuts to Medicare. The Romney campaign's response has not been to say, "Yes, we need to cut Medicare in order to bring down the deficit, pay for a strong military and keep taxes low." Rather, they've chosen to go with, "No, you're cutting Medicare!"

The debate on taxes has gone much the same way. The Obama campaign has touted the Tax Policy Center's analysis showing that the Romney campaign can't keep its tax promises without either blowing up the deficit or raising taxes on the middle class. Romney's response? No, you are:

Now, interestingly, the same center did an analysis of President Obama's tax plan and concluded that he's raising taxes on the middle-class.

I consider myself something of a connoisseur of the Tax Policy Center's reports, and I didn't remember any showing that result. So I asked the Romney campaign: What analysis were they referring to? They pointed me to Table T12-0045, which analyzes President Obama's 2013 budget request against current policy. Here's the relevant section:

I know, lots of numbers. But my fellow TPC-ophiles will notice something off the bat: Those numbers do not appear to show a middle-class tax increase. Here's where to look:

The highlighted boxes show the net tax change for different income quintiles. For the bottom four quintiles — the bottom 80 percent of the country — there is, on average, a tax cut, not a tax increase. And I don't know where you find the middle class if not in the bottom 80 percent of the income distribution.

But the Romney campaign clarified that they weren't looking at those columns. They were looking at these columns:

Those columns show the percentage of tax units (a technical term, but think "households" and you're close enough for our purposes) in a given income group that will see a tax increase under the new plan. As it happens, under Obama's plan, a majority of the bottom 80 percent sees no tax change. A minority of tax units see a small increase. A somewhat smaller minority see a somewhat larger tax cut. And so, while there's a tax cut overall, some households see a tax increase.

Because any tax change has winners or losers, we tend to look at averages when assessing whether a tax plan raises or lowers taxes on an individual group. The Romney campaign is asking whether anyone in the group that could be called "the middle class" sees a tax increase, and some do. If I were Politifact, I'd rate Romney's claim "mostly false," but you can decide for yourself.

Now, there's a separate tax policy table (T12-0049, for those keeping track) that looks at Obama's budget a few years down the road and finds a small tax increase for the fourth quintile. I think you can fairly say that the 60-80th percentile includes at least some of "the middle class," and so if the Romney campaign was pointing to that table, which perhaps they'll start doing, I'd say their claim is mostly true.

For comparison, here's TPC's table on Romney's plan, which is looking solely at the tax cuts — it doesn't include any offsets or base broadeners, as Romney hasn't specifically named any:

Romney's plan is a net tax increase on poorest Americans, as it permits certain stimulus-related tax breaks to expire. But even in this version of the plan, which doesn't include any offsets and increases the deficit by trillions of dollars, some tax units see an increase. That's just the way these things break down. But would Romney describe his own plan as a middle-class tax increase?

If you begin adding offsets to achieve Romney's promise of revenue-neutrality, the plan becomes a middle-class tax increase, even if you cut every tax break for the rich before you cut a dollar of tax breaks for anyone else. More detail on that here.

Update: An Obama administration official e-mails:

The tables you’re comparing are apples and oranges in the following sense: The Tax Policy Center is modeling both individual and corporate taxes in our plan. What’s creating those losers for us is the incidence of corporate taxes. TPC’s analysis of Romney is just on the individual side. If you did just individual for us, there wouldn’t be anyone under $250,000 with a tax increase. So apples-to-apples with the analysis of Romney's plan, our plan has no increases on the middle class.

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Ezra Klein · August 17, 2012