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Tax Burden Shifts to the Middle

Presidential Campaigns Draw Differing Conclusions From Report

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 13, 2004; Page A04

Since 2001, President Bush's tax cuts have shifted federal tax payments from the richest Americans to a wide swath of middle-class families, the Congressional Budget Office has found, a conclusion likely to roil the presidential election campaign.

The CBO study, due to be released today, found that the wealthiest 20 percent, whose incomes averaged $182,700 in 2001, saw their share of federal taxes drop from 64.4 percent of total tax payments in 2001 to 63.5 percent this year. The top 1 percent, earning $1.1 million, saw their share fall to 20.1 percent of the total, from 22.2 percent.

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Over that same period, taxpayers with incomes from around $51,500 to around $75,600 saw their share of federal tax payments increase. Households earning around $75,600 saw their tax burden jump the most, from 18.7 percent of all taxes to 19.5 percent.

The analysis, requested in May by congressional Democrats, echoes similar studies by think tanks and Democratic activist groups. But the conclusions have heightened significance because of their source, a nonpartisan government agency headed by a former senior economist from the Bush White House, Douglas Holtz-Eakin. The study will likely stoke an already burning debate about the fairness and efficacy of $1.7 trillion in tax cuts that the president pushed through Congress.

"CBO is nonpartisan, it's independent, and right now it works for a Republican Congress with a former Bush economist at its head," said Jason Furman, economic director of the presidential campaign of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). "There's no higher authority on the subject."

Girding for the study's release, Bush campaign officials have already begun dismissing it as "the Democrat-requested report."

"The CBO answers the questions they are asked," said Terry Holt, a Bush campaign spokesman. "To the extent the questions are shaded to receive a certain response, that's often the response you get."

The question posed was a standard request for analysis of the type members on both sides of the aisle routinely make of the CBO. In this case the ranking Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Finance Committee, the House and Senate budget committees and the Joint Economic Committee asked Holtz-Eakin -- the former chief economist of Bush's Council of Economic Advisers -- to estimate the distribution of the tax cuts among income levels, and compare that to tax levels if none of the cuts were passed.

The conclusions are stark. The effective federal tax rate of the top 1 percent of taxpayers has fallen from 33.4 percent to 26.7 percent, a 20 percent drop. In contrast, the middle 20 percent of taxpayers -- whose incomes averaged $51,500 in 2001 -- saw their tax rates drop 9.3 percent. The poorest taxpayers saw their taxes fall 16 percent.

Republican aides on Capitol Hill, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the tax cuts actually made federal income taxes -- as opposed to total taxes -- more equitable.

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