With Obama leaving his Hawaii vacation for Washington Wednesday evening and lawmakers returning Thursday, the main dividing line between Republicans and Democrats has come down to whether tax rates should increase for top earners at the end of the year, when the Bush-era tax cuts are set to expire. While Republicans want to extend all the cuts, Democrats are pushing to maintain lower rates on household income below $250,000. Those lower rates significantly reduce the taxes of nearly all American households that earn less than $250,000 — and many who earn more, even if tax rates are allowed to increase on income above that figure.
While it is increasingly unlikely that the two parties will reach an agreement to avoid the fiscal cliff before Jan. 1, it is all but certain that their ultimate deal, whenever it comes, will make permanent the lower rates for most Americans.
R. Glenn Hubbard, dean of the Columbia Business School and an architect of the Bush tax cuts, said it is “deeply ironic” for Democrats to favor extending most of them, given what he called their “visceral” opposition a decade ago. Keeping the lower rates even for income under $250,000 “would enshrine the vast bulk of the Bush tax cuts,” he said.
Democrats say they have reconsidered their opposition to the Bush tax cuts for several reasons. The cuts were written into law from 2001 to 2003 after a decade in which most Americans saw robust income growth. Over the past decade, by contrast, median wages have declined, after adjusting for inflation, amid a weak economy. Allowing tax cuts for the middle class to expire would further reduce take-home pay.
“We’ve had these tax cuts in place since 2001. The world changes, and the economy is where it is,” said Steven Elmendorf, who was chief of staff to former House minority leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), a primary opponent of the Bush tax cuts. “With people’s economic status, we should not be raising taxes on people earning under $250,000.”
What’s more, income inequality has been growing. Sparing the middle class higher taxes while requiring the wealthy to pay more would tip the scales slightly in the other direction.
“The reason there’s been this movement toward broad consensus on renewing the tax cut for working- and middle-class families is that will give us a sharper progressivity in the tax system that is very much desired by Democrats and progressives who’ve seen an income distribution more and more distorted toward the wealthy,” said Betsey Stevenson, former chief economist in Obama’s Labor Department and a professor at the University of Michigan, who added that taxes may have to rise even more than currently contemplated to meet the country’s needs.