The Senate will work on yet another business tax credit bill this week, aiming to give $28 billion in credits to mostly small businesses that hire more workers or increase pay. A company could wipe away up to $500,000 of their tax liability if the bill passes. While an independent consultant predicted that the plan could add up to one million jobs, previous business tax credits have not really moved the needle on hiring, because businesses still indicate that the major factor in their hiring is poor sales, not tax policy.
This hasn’t stopped Congress and the White House from taking credit for literally dozens of business tax credits, typically defined as but not always confined to small businesses (on the Senate floor today, Harry Reid called this bill the 19th small business tax cut in the last 3 1/2 years).
If you look at this impressive roundup of all the tax policies changed during the Obama Administration, you see that we’re in an era of tax cuts. Over $1.47 trillion in tax cuts, in fact. To break this down, $290 billion of that came from the stimulus, and were mostly targeted toward individuals rather than businesses. Another $733 billion came from the 2010 tax cut deal, mostly to extending the Bush tax cuts and cutting the payroll tax. Another $110 billion came from the extension of the payroll tax cut through 2012. The rest can be attributed to the coverage subsidies for the health care law (literally tax credits) and all those small business tax cuts everyone likes to tout, including the HIRE Act, the previous version of a job creation tax cut.
The tax increases under the Obama Presidency are mostly embedded in the health care law, with a few more in a tobacco bill that increased taxes for cigarettes. Strangely, while we hear so much about the tax penalty from the individual mandate, the two big tax increases in the Affordable Care Act are the excise tax on high-end insurance plans and a major increase in the Medicare payroll tax on high-income Americans making over $250,000 a year. This raises $200 billion entirely off the rich and you never hear about it.
The point is that we’ve had $1.47 trillion in tax cuts just over the past four years, and are on track for a bunch more. The Preisdent’s plan to extend the Bush tax cuts for the first $250,000 of income, if applied over ten years, would cost $3.6 TRILLION on its own.
A couple things about this. First, tax cuts have become the path of least resistance. If you cannot get Republicans to agree on spending stimulus, you can persuade them on the tax side. So all fiscal accommodation over the past couple years has been run in this fashion. And that means that Republicans continue to drive federal policy to push tax rates ever downward. The corresponding increases, mostly buried in bigger bills that have tax cuts of their own, never make up for the losses.
This is also why “tax reform” is such a chimera. The idea that we can lower rates and broaden the base of tax collection, and expect that base to stay broad, is undermined by the results of the past four years. Tax cuts will get handed out like candy to specifically narrow that base of collection.