The Rubio Tax Plan Asks for Grief

In March, Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio and Senator Mike Lee unveiled a tax reform plan that’s gotten mixed reviews. While there’s praise for their ideas on taxes for business, the reception for their proposed changes to the individual income tax aren’t so positive. Here are some short articles that express reservations about the Rubio-Lee tax reform ideas for the individual income tax.

In “Grading The Rubio-Lee Tax Reform Plan” on March 4 at Forbes, Dan Mitchell of the Cato Institute analyzes what’s wrong and what’s right with the plan. The “most disappointing feature of the plan” is its reduction of the top rate by only 4.6 percent. But more significantly, the new top rate would kick in at much lower thresholds: $75,000 for singles and $150,000 for marrieds. Currently, the top rate applies “only when income climbs above $400,000.” Mitchell concludes that “a significant number of taxpayers will face higher marginal tax rates.”

In “Some Thoughts about the Rubio-Lee Tax Plan” on March 11 at National Review, Veronique de Rugy notes that the plan raises “marginal tax rates on a significant number of middle-class and upper-middle class households.”

In “Where the Rubio Tax Plan Falls Short” on April 2 in the Wall Street Journal, Amity Shlaes and Matthew Denhart begin with this question: “Can a technical debate over tax plans trigger an identity crisis in the Republican Party?” They believe it can, and write: “It is no wonder that Democratic and liberal strategists have singled out the Rubio-Lee plan for praise.”

In “Marco Rubio tax plan challenges GOP orthodoxy” on April 9 at Politico, Ben White writes: “Rubio appears to be hoping his plan will appeal to Republican voters concerned about rising economic inequality and tired of getting beaten up in the general election over plans that Democrats say would hand massive tax cuts to the rich at the expense of the middle class.”

That would seem to confirm Shlaes-Denhart on leftwing praise for the Rubio plan. But Republicans are less concerned about “rising economic inequality” than about dwindling opportunity and stagnant economic growth. White, however, goes on to quote the supply-side guru at CNBC:

“This business side of the plan is pretty darn good and I like it,” said Larry Kudlow, a conservative economist who served in the Ronald Reagan administration. “The personal side of it is a mess and will be politically and economically indefensible and he is going to take tremendous criticism for it and my guess is he will have to back off it very fast.”

In “Marco Rubio’s Tax Plan Has Nothing to Do With Economic Growth” on April 13 at Townhall, John Tamny writes: “More than they’d like to admit, what they’re proposing would amount to a major tax increase for many Americans.”

In “Has Marco Rubio Finally Created a Tax Cut So Huge Republicans Don’t Like It?” on April 20 at New York magazine, Jonathan Chait writes that “Rubio’s slightly different problem is that his tax cut is so gargantuan that nobody in the party actually believes it.”

The “most unkindest cut of all” was delivered at The Blaze when Glenn Beck said that “his tax plan is so bad, Americans may as well ‘just vote for Barack Obama again.’” (At least Beck didn’t call Rubio a “progressive.”)

In any type of tax reform there will be tradeoffs. Congress cannot change statutory tax rates and brackets without changing tax liabilities, i.e. what taxpayers actually pay to the IRS. Rubio’s plan changes both dramatically. There are only two rates in the plan: 35 percent and 15 percent. With the Rubio plan, there are winners and losers; some will be paying less than before and some more. With regard to his proposals for individual income tax rates and brackets, the Rubio plan is a recipe for resentment.

The Republican Party seems stuck on cutting tax rates as a solution to all ills. I’ve railed against tax rates my damnself. (In fact, I even believe in a constitutional amendment to limit what government can take in taxation.) But if Republicans rally around cutting tax rates for the wealthy, the political reality is that the media flunkies of the Left will relentlessly beat up on the GOP with accusations of “tax cuts for the rich.”

In “Right-wing hostility to Marco Rubio’s tax plan shows the GOP is stuck in the past” on April 15 at This Week, James Pethokoukis opined: “If voters think the GOP’s big economic idea is tax cuts for rich people, the next American president will probably be another Democrat.”

Furthermore, the Left will have a field day if Republicans implement Rubio’s plan and there’s a shortfall in revenue. In a condescending article at the New York Times, we read that “a previous version of the plan… would have cost the government $2.4 trillion in lost revenues over 10 years, and this plan adds new deep tax cuts… that would cost trillions more.” Also, The New Republic ran two scathing articles on Rubio’s plan here and here. National Journal ran an article that’s not quite as nasty. But the upshot is that any cut in revenue will have the Left caterwauling about the “fraud” that is “trickle-down economics,” and how it has never worked.

Republicans need to avoid such grief. That’s why the first requirement of Republican tax reform must be that it not damage revenue, even in the first year(s) of implementation. The individual income tax is the largest source of revenue to the federal government. Republican tax reform needs to bring in at least as much revenue from the individual income tax as we currently do. Otherwise, gird your loins for leftwing flak.

Since Republicans captured the U.S. House there has been an historic drop in the deficit, from $1,299B in fiscal 2011 to $484B in 2014 (Table 1.1 of OMB’s historical tables). That’s an improvement of $815B in three years, and probably the record. Some $303B of that improvement (Table 2.1) is due to increased revenue from the individual income tax.

Despite the huge improvement, the 2014 deficit was still larger than any before the Pelosi-Reid Congress. Now that Republicans control both houses of Congress, they must not allow the deficit to go back up, especially by cutting revenue. In 2014, the individual income tax brought in $1.394T in revenue. So if a retroactive reform were enacted this year, $1.394T should be the minimum revenue target for the individual income tax for 2015.

The Rubio-Lee tax plan (PDF) contains several worthy ideas, but the changes to individual income tax rates and brackets aren’t among them. Senator Rubio is an attractive candidate, and I could easily vote for him. But the Republican Party cannot afford to be perceived as the party of “tax cuts for the rich” any longer. Let’s balance the budget again, gentlemen. After all, that’s what conservatives do.

Jon N. Hall is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City. 

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