The Reagan administration may restore the "marriage penalty" deduction to its tax overhaul plan, following criticism from members of Congress and women's groups that the proposed repeal was a veiled attempt to keep women from working.
"We're looking to see if we think there's a problem that needs to be fixed," a Treasury Department official said. "We're looking at it. We are concerned."
The two-earner deduction was enacted in 1981 in an effort to compensate working couples who were pushed into higher tax brackets by pooling their income on joint returns. Because of the progressive nature of the tax code, such couples would pay more taxes than their single counterparts.
As a result, working couples can deduct 10 percent of the wages of the spouse with the lesser income, up to $3,000. In 1986, under current law, the deduction would save almost $7 billion in taxes for working couples nationwide.
In proposing to repeal the deduction, Reagan contended that because he seeks to reduce the current 14 rate brackets to three, fewer couples would be thrust into higher tax brackets. Lower rates would reduce the impact of combining incomes, the administration says.
The differing impact of the tax revision plan on one-earner and two-earner couples is illustrated by analyses of the administration's own figures.
Earlier this month, Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III submitted to Congress examples of "typical," median-income families of four in each state showing who would get tax cuts under the president's plan.
But none of these examples included families with two salaries. Instead, they were all one-earner couples in which one spouse stayed home to care for the children. As such, they showed no extra tax liability from repeal of the two-earner deduction.
However, recent analyses of the Treasury Department data have indicated that working couples in the median income range in several states would face widespread tax increases without this deduction, while couples in which one spouse stays home would have tax cuts.
The apparent inequity has fueled criticism that the administration's proposal, which Reagan calls "pro-family," favors one kind of family -- "traditional" households in which the mother does not work. The administration also proposes to convert the current child-care credit to a deduction, which would benefit wealthy families more than middle and lower income ones.
Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) asked Treasury Secretary Baker at a hearing last week whether the plan included a bias against certain kinds of families.
"It's not productive for me to get in a debate about what does or does not constitute a family," Baker answered.
Rep. Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.) of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee also expressed concern about "the proposed tilt" against working couples. He and other congressmen said they hoped to "take some action on that."
Treasury officials said it is not clear whether they will seek to restore the existing marriage deduction or a smaller one.
They said they are preparing examples of median income families in each state with two working parents rather than one, and will submit them to Congress.
"We're not promoting one family over another," Reagan told a convention of Jaycees in Indianapolis this week. "We just want all families treated the same."