President Trump and congressional Republicans keep saying their tax plan doesn't help the rich. But that's not true.
The nine-page outline released Wednesday is full of goodies that will make millionaires and billionaires happy. Republicans say it's a starting point, but it would have to be turned on its head to be anything other than a windfall for the wealthy. In fact, in nine pages, The Washington Post counts at least nine ways the wealthy benefit, including Trump himself. Here's our list:
1) A straight-up tax cut for the rich. The top tax rate in the United States is 39.6 percent. Trump and GOP leaders propose lowering that to 35 percent. It's also worth noting the 39.6 percent tax rate applies only to income above $418,400 for singles and $470,700 for married couples. The outline doesn't specify what income level the new 35 percent rate would kick in at. It's possible the rich will get an every bigger tax cut if the final plan raises that threshold.
2) The estate tax goes bye-bye. Trump likes to call the estate tax the “death tax.” At the moment, Americans who pass money, homes or other assets on to heirs when they die pay a 40 percent tax. But here's the important part Trump leaves out: The only people who have to pay this tax are those passing on more than $5.49 million. (And a married couple can inherit nearly $11 million without paying the tax.)
Trump frequently claims the estate tax hurts farmers and small-business owners. But as The Post's Fact Checker team points out, only 5,500 estates will pay any estate tax at all in 2017 (out of about 3 million estates). And of those 5,500 hit with the tax, only 80 (yes, you read that right) are farms or small businesses.
3) Hedge funds and lawyers get a special tax break. The plan calls for the tax rate on “pass-through entities” to fall from 39.6 percent to 25 percent. Republicans claim this is a tax break for small-business owners because “pass-through entities” is an umbrella term that covers the ways most people set up businesses: sole proprietorships, partnerships and S corporations. But the reality is, most small-business owners (more than 85 percent) already pay a tax rate of 25 percent or less, according to the Brookings Institution.
Only 3 percent pay a rate greater than 30 percent. That 3 percent includes doctors, lawyers, hedge fund managers and other really well-off people. Instead of paying a 35 percent income tax, these rich business owners would be able to pass off their income as business income and pay only a 25 percent tax rate. (The tax outline released Wednesday “contemplates” that Congress “will adopt measures to prevent” this kind of tax dodging. But there's no guarantee that will happen).
4) The AMT is over. Republicans want to kill the alternative minimum tax, a measure put in place in 1969 to ensure the wealthy aren't using a bunch of loopholes and credits to lower their tax bills to paltry sums. The AMT starts to phase in for people with earnings of about $130,000, but the vast majority of people subject to the AMT earn over $500,000, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.
Trump himself would benefit from repealing the AMT. As The Post's Fact Checker team notes, Trump's leaked tax return from 2005 shows that the AMT increased his tax bill from about $5.3 million to $36.5 million. In 2005 alone, he potentially could have saved $31 million.
5) The wealthy get to keep deducting mortgage interest. Only about 1 in 4 taxpayers claims the mortgage interest deduction, the Brookings Institution says. “Upper-income households primarily benefit from the subsidy,” wrote Brookings scholar Bruce Katz in a report last year. In fact, the wealthy can deduct interest payments on mortgages worth up to $1 million. There have been many calls over the years to lower that threshold, but the Trump tax plan is keeping it in place.
The GOP is doing this even though the tax cuts would add to the United States' debt, since it doesn't raise enough revenue to offset all the money lost from the new tax breaks. The outline also calls for the charitable deduction to stay, another deduction used heavily by the top 1 percent.
6) Stockholders are going to be very happy. Trump is calling for a super-low tax rate on the money big businesses such as Apple and Microsoft bring back to the United States from overseas, a process known as “repatriation.” Trump argues companies will use all this money coming home to build new U.S. factories. But the last time the United States did this, in the early 2000s, it ended up being a big win for people who own stocks. Companies simply took most of the money and gave it to shareholders in the form of dividends and share buybacks.
Guess what? Just about everyone (outside the White House) predicts the same thing will happen again. Corporations are even admitting it.
7) The favorite tax break of hedge fund billionaires is still safe. There's no mention in the tax-overhaul rubric of “carried interest.” Those two words make most people's eyes glaze over, but they are a well-known tax-dodging trick for millionaires and billionaires on Wall Street. Hedge fund and private-equity managers earn most of their money from their investments doing well. But instead of paying income taxes on all that money at a rate of 39.6 percent, the managers are able to claim it as “carried interest” so they can pay tax at the low capital gains rate of 20 percent.
Trump called this totally unfair on the campaign trail. During the primaries, he said he would eliminate this loophole because hedge fund managers were “getting away with murder.” But that change didn't end up in the GOP plan.
8) Capital gains taxes stay low. The nine-page document also says nothing about capital gains, the tax rate people pay when they finally sell a stock or asset after holding on to it for many years. At the moment, the wealthiest Americans pay a 20 percent capital gains rate. Trump and Republican leaders aren't proposing any changes to that, even though it is a popular way for millionaires to lower their tax bill.
9) The Obamacare investment tax goes away. The Affordable Care Act put in place a 3.8 percent surcharge on investment income (known formally as the Net Investment Income Tax). It applies only to individuals earning more than $200,000 a year and married couples earning more than $250,000. There's no mention of this tax in the outline released this week, but Republicans clearly want to get rid of it. Repealing it was part of the GOP health-care bills that failed to pass Congress in recent weeks. One way or another, Republicans are likely to roll back this tax.
When reporters asked Trump whether the tax plan would help him personally, he quickly said no.
“No, I don’t benefit. I don’t benefit,” Trump said. “In fact, very, very strongly, as you see, I think there’s very little benefit for people of wealth.”
Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.), who was part of the team that worked with the White House to craft the tax-overhaul outline, was asked a similar question on Fox News. He, too, said this plan does little to help the rich.
“I think those who benefit most are middle-class families struggling to keep every dollar they earn,” Brady told Fox News.
But one look at this plan tells a very different story. It gives an outright tax cut to the wealthiest Americans and it preserves almost all of the most popular loopholes they use to reduce their tax bills.
Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), a strong proponent of tax cuts, was more straightforward this week. He told reporters, “This is a supply-side approach,” another way of saying trickle-down economics.