Update 515: Bills Beyond Relief:
Paying For the Road to Recovery
Now that President Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief bill, the American Rescue Plan (ARP), has officially been signed into law and almost entirely deficit-financed, focus is shifting to a new multi-trillion dollar package centered on infrastructure: The Recovery Act. Some are calling for revenue offsets to pay for new spending and statutory PAYGO rules impose constraints as well.
The economy is struggling and raising taxes at this juncture could impede the recovery. To the extent possible, pay-for requirements should be waived or enforcement delayed. But the approaching question of whether, when, and how to pay for this package is one to be considered and we do so, below.
Good weekends all,
Exact details of Biden’s highly anticipated infrastructure package are expected in April. Rep. DeFazio of House Transportation and Infrastructure and Sen. Carper of Senate Environment and Public Works are seeking to pass versions through their committees in May. Per topline figures released by the Biden White House, the bill’s overall price tag will likely exceed $2 trillion.
For the last several years, “infrastructure week” has been a running punchline in Washington, but the need for improved infrastructure is no joke. The American Society of Civil Engineers grades the United States’ infrastructure as a C-minus and estimates that $2.6 trillion in new investment is needed over the next decade to close the long-term investment gap.
Biden’s plan would close this gap significantly, but given the recent passage of the $1.9 trillion ARP and a projected 2021 budget deficit of $2.3 trillion, many Democrats have requested revenue offsets to partially pay for new infrastructure spending. While pay-fors seemingly frustrate progressive policy, Democrats in this Congress have an opportunity to advance a progressive agenda and make the Tax Code fairer, undoing some of the most inequitable provisions of the 2017 Republican tax cut law.
During the campaign, Biden proposed a series of changes to the Tax Code that would raise $2.1 trillion over the next decade. Biden will likely draw from these proposals when assembling pay-fors for the infrastructure bill, although he is expected to only call for about $1 trillion in new taxes. Regardless, Congress might be hesitant to raise taxes given the weakened labor market and economy.
Even if reconciliation is used to avoid paying for short-term costs, the extensive timeframe of infrastructure spending will require revenue increases beyond a 10-year budget window. Compliance with statutory PAYGO requires budgetary offsets later this year or legislation to delay sequestration of mandatory programs — which could affect how much revenue Democrats will try to raise. The good news is that there is an abundance of revenue options that could raise the needed funds and fix inequities in the Tax Code.
- Raise Corporate Tax Rate to 28 percent: The 2017 TCJA slashed the marginal corporate tax rate from 35 to 21 percent. However, most large corporations get away with paying a much lower effective rate due to loopholes. Biden proposes lifting the rate by seven percent, generating around $700 billion in revenue over the next decade. Using higher corporate taxation to pay for greater investment in infrastructure would have a net positive effect on economic growth. While each dollar in increased corporate tax revenue would decrease economic activity by a projected 32 cents, every dollar put into transportation spending would increase economic activity by 1.29 dollars.
- Instituting a Corporate Minimum Tax: Multinational corporations evade taxation by parking trillions of dollars in earnings offshore. Last year, the Biden campaign proposed:
- Country-by-country minimum tax: This proposal would replace the TCJA’s Global Intangible Low-Taxed Income (GILTI). GILTI requires multinational companies pay at least 10.5 percent on foreign income generated from intangible assets held abroad, with a blanket 21 percent tax rate on profits earned by foreign subsidiaries of U.S. firms. This would recover an estimated $442 billion over the next 10 years.
- Minimum global book income tax: This proposal would institute a 15 percent minimum tax on corporations with at least $100 million in annual income. However, when calculating this new minimum tax, corporations would still be allowed to deduct losses carried forward from previous years and foreign taxes paid. This change would raise an estimated $109 billion over the next 10 years.
- Repeal Pass-Through Deduction (PTD): While ordinary citizens have to pay their income taxes in full, in the TCJA, Republicans granted partnerships and sole proprietors a 20 percent deduction on their qualified business income. Scheduled to sunset in 2026, the PTD constituted the biggest giveaway to the ultra-wealthy, with nearly half of the tax benefit going to the top one percent of households. The Congressional Research Service found that this tax provision had no discernible effect on job growth. Accelerating its sunset would save American taxpayers $342 billion.
- Restore 2009 Estate Tax Levels: Over three decades, Republican lawmakers have made a concerted effort to chip away at the estate tax. Currently, only estates of over $11.5 million are taxed at a paltry 40 percent, not taking into account rampant estate tax avoidance. With historic levels of wealth inequality, now is the perfect opportunity to rebalance the economic scales by curbing further asset accumulation. Taxing estates of over $3.5 million at the previous rate of 55 percent with strong enforcement would generate $268 billion over the next decade. Only 0.2 percent of households would be affected by this tax change.
- Close the Carried Interest Loophole: Currently, private equity and hedge fund managers are allowed to take advantage of the preferential 20 percent capital gains rate on income received as compensation, rather than the ordinary top income tax rates of 37 percent. In the wake of private equity-owned nursing homes being implicated in the deaths of more than 20,000 senior citizens, congressional Democrats are determined to crack down on this absurd tax privilege. Rep. Bill Pascrell recently reintroduced the Carried Interest Fairness Act and more legislation on this issue may soon follow. The CBO estimates this tax change would generate $14 billion of revenue over the next decade.
Political and Legislative Challenges
Any change to the Tax Code — particularly when it comes to tax increases — is a difficult political lift. Each tax provision has an army of lobbyists seeking to protect the status quo, and tax increases often involve technical challenges such as whether to implement it immediately or phase it in gradually.
Biden and some members of Congress have expressed a desire to include Republicans in formulating the infrastructure package. But despite both parties having expressed interest in infrastructure in the past few years, producing a bipartisan bill through regular order would be exceedingly difficult. While moderate Democrats have called for pay-fors, Republicans express strong opposition to any tax increases. Given this, Democrats will likely use the FY 2022 reconciliation bill as a vehicle for infrastructure. Another possibility, as White House chief of staff Ron Klain suggested to Congressional Progressive Caucus members, could be to break up the bill into smaller pieces, passing some with bipartisan support through regular order and the rest via reconciliation.
Restoring the Economy, First
President Biden campaigned on an America built back better, and a critical part of that project is recovering some of the revenue lost from decades of regressive tax policy. At the same time, PAYGO compliance and tax policy in 2021 should avoid running countercyclically. To everything there is a season, but there is no need to make inflation or deficits later the enemy of recovery in the meantime.