Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.): “Well, but he also takes away things like the mortgage interest deduction, the local — state and local property …”
Chris Wallace: “No, no, no, that’s not true. He doesn’t take away the mortgage. No, he does not take away the mortgage interest deduction.”
Schumer: “You cannot do it without the standard deduction. He takes away state and local, as well, and middle-class people get far less of a benefit, many of them were hurt. One estimate said that millions would pay more, and the rich do extremely well.”
— Exchange on “Fox News Sunday,” April 30, 2017

(The rating on this column has been updated)

A reader asked about this exchange, given that one of the few clear statements regarding President Trump’s tax plan is that although many itemized deductions would be eliminated, the popular deductions for mortgage interest and charitable contributions would not be touched. Indeed, Wallace calls out Schumer, saying that Trump’s plan “does not take away the mortgage interest deduction.”

Matt House, Schumer’s communication director, said the senator misspoke during the interview and instead meant to refer to the deduction for property taxes. These taxes often help fund schools and local governments and can be high in urban areas such as New York. The same day as the Fox interview, Schumer held a news conference to charge that ending the property tax deduction could result in $4,300 to $5,500 in additional average taxes for homeowners on Long Island and in New York City.

We don’t play gotcha when a politician admits an error. But we were also curious about Schumer’s statement that “one estimate said that millions would pay more, and the rich do extremely well.” Given that Trump has pitched his plan as benefiting the middle class, what’s the evidence for the notion that millions will see an increase?

The Facts

The one-page document issued by the White House offered only a few details. For middle-income families, there were three key elements:

  • Reducing the seven tax brackets to three tax brackets for 10 percent, 25 percent and 35 percent
  • Doubling the standard deduction
  • Providing tax relief for families with child- and dependent-care expenses

The document claimed that targeted tax breaks that benefit mainly the wealthy would be eliminated. But the plan would also repeal the alternative minimum tax, the estate tax and a 3.8 percent tax on investment income that was part of the Affordable Care Act. Removing the AMT, designed to ensure that the wealthy pay at least some tax, especially might save some taxpayers a lot of money; Trump’s 2005 tax return that was recently revealed showed that he paid an additional $31 million because of the AMT.

Since Trump has not identified all of the tax breaks that might be eliminated, it’s unclear whether those items would make up for the elimination of the AMT. Nevertheless, since the wealthy pay most of the taxes — and because this is a broad-based tax revision that reduces income tax brackets — it’s safe at this point to assume that the wealthy will garner most of the benefits. Small-business owners, in fact, might be able to reduce their top rate from 39.6 percent to 15 percent under Trump’s plan. So there are potentially large gains in after-tax income for wealthier Americans.

Oddly, the White House has not even indicated that income range for the new tax brackets, though in an interview with “CBS This Morning” on May 1, the director of the White House National Economic Council indicated that the 10 percent bracket would at least extend to the mid-$30,000s. (Here are the current tax brackets.)

“The median income in the United States today is about $56,000. You take the $24,000 away from the $56,000, you’ve got taxable income of $32,000,” Gary Cohn said. “At a 10 percent rate, that’s $3,000 of tax.”

But what about the notion that millions of middle-class Americans would pay more?

Schumer’s office pointed to a study written in October for the Tax Policy Center by Lily Batchelder, a professor of public policy at New York University who was deputy director of the National Economic Council in 2014-2015. Under her analysis, more than half of America’s single parents and one-fifth of its families with children could see their federal income taxes increase under the Trump tax plan released during the campaign.

Batchelder “conservatively” estimated that “Trump’s plan would increase taxes for about 8.7 million families,” but the number could be as high as 11 million under “reasonable assumptions.”

The main reasons: During the campaign, Trump said he would eliminate the personal and dependent exemptions (currently $4,050 per family member) and the head-of-household category, which benefits mostly unmarried taxpayers with dependents. So, even with the increase in the standard deduction, unmarried taxpayers with dependents and married taxpayers with large families would end up as net losers.

A chart from Batchelder’s report shows that even with an increase in the standard deduction, the elimination of personal and dependent exemptions would leave many with higher taxable incomes.

Here are some specific examples from her report:

  • A single parent with $75,000 in earnings and two school-age children would face a tax increase of about $2,440.
  • A single parent with $50,000 in earnings and three school-age children would face a tax increase of about $1,188.

The existing standard deduction that Americans can claim is $6,300 for individuals and $12,600 for married couples filing jointly. During the campaign, Trump proposed raising the standard deduction to $15,000 for individuals and $30,000 for families. So the official proposal has a smaller increase, meaning that even more working-class families could see a tax increase.

On the other hand, during the campaign, Trump also proposed tax rates of 12, 25 and 33 percent. So the new 10-25-35 formula is a shift that might benefit lower-income taxpayers, depending on the income ranges of the brackets.

But here’s the biggest change: The Trump tax plan is silent on whether it would still repeal the personal and dependent exemptions or eliminate the head-of-household category. A White House official explained that the only things off the table are mortgage interest, charitable contributions and pretax savings of retirement accounts such as 401ks. But he indicated that the personal exemption might remain in place.

“Any other deduction a person or business takes today is subject to potential elimination. That doesn’t mean any additional deduction will be eliminated, but means it’s not a dealbreaker out of the gate,” he said. “If the plan doesn’t address it, that falls into the realm of uncertainty, where scoring or making definitive statements is premature.”

Further complicating the uncertainty, the official also noted that the Trump administration is considering additional child tax credits and tax provisions to help families with child-care expenses. So that might also reduce taxes for working families.

Interestingly, when Cohn gave “CBS This Morning” his hypothetical example of the $56,000-a-year family, he did not include personal exemptions in his off-the-cuff calculations. Despite the official position, that appears to be a pretty good clue to the administration’s thinking. For a married couple with two or more children, that is likely to mean at least a small tax increase, according to calculations of David Kamin of New York University.

Batchelder said that if personal and dependent exemptions remain eliminated, her analysis probably would not change much. “I don’t expect it to change dramatically provided that the unspecified features from last week are the same as his proposal from the fall,” she said. “But the magnitude and direction of any change would depend on the income bands for the new rate brackets proposed last week, and he didn’t specify those income bands.”

However, she said, “it would significantly change the calculation if they withdrew their proposals to repeal personal and dependent exemptions and head-of-household status.” But she was skeptical that would happen. “All they would have had to do is add about 10 words to the bullet points they released last week,” she noted. “They chose not to do so, despite the fact that they have known that their plan raises taxes on millions of middle-class families since last September.”

The Pinocchio Test

The new Trump tax proposal is similar to his campaign plan but differs in key respects. That makes it problematic to cite an analysis of the campaign plan, as Schumer did. But at the same time, the White House has been incredibly vague about key details of the new plan, making it impossible to assess how it would affect taxpayers in different income groups.

The key here is what happens to personal and dependent exemptions, especially because Trump decided not to increase the standard deduction as much as he proposed in the campaign. Schumer’s comment may well be correct, especially given Cohn’s public comments. But until further details are released, we will have to label this as Verdict Pending.

Update, Nov. 9: Analysis of the the House GOP tax plan by the Tax Policy Center shows that on average, taxes would decline for people in various income groups but that a substantial number — about 10 million taxpayers — would see their taxes rise. The problem gets even worse in the later years of the ten-year period covered by the tax plan. So we are switching this rating to a Geppetto Checkmark.

The Geppetto Checkmark

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"One estimate said that millions would pay more, and the rich do extremely well.”
in an interview on "Fox News Sunday"
Sunday, April 30, 2017