Opinion

WILFORD: Kamala Harris Still Doesn’t Seem To Understand Taxes

REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

Andrew Wilford National Taxpayers' Union Foundation
Font Size:

California Sen. Kamala Harris is running for president and looking to separate herself from a crowded field. But when she attempted to take a cheap shot at the president over tax refunds, it didn’t work out well for her.

She tweeted:

This is either an argument made in bad faith, or some astonishing ignorance from a senator on how taxes work.

First and foremost, the size of your tax refund is not related to your overall tax liability. Your tax refund is the amount of money you overpaid Uncle Sam, effectively giving the federal government an interest-free loan. While it can feel nice to get a sizable tax refund in April, in reality you’re better off with no tax refund at all — because that means that the government didn’t withhold too much of your money in the first place.

What matters is your tax liability, the total amount you owe the federal government in taxes. And on that count, it’s clear that the tax reform law will benefit middle-class Americans. The center-left Tax Policy Center found that 90 percent of families making between $40,000 and $200,000 a year will receive a tax cut. The fact that President Trump’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) granted a tax cut to the middle class “is not in dispute by anyone except Harris.”

But even setting that (major) point aside, Harris is still way off base in attributing the drop in the size of tax refunds to the TCJA. That’s because the IRS data Harris is referring to essentially comes from tax refund data from one week of filing, which is obviously not representative of the size of tax refunds across the general population.

There are a lot of reasons to think that the size of refunds may get higher as time moves along. Americans were technically supposed to update their withholding tables in the wake of tax reform law, but only around 20 percent did. It stands to reason that a lot of the same people filing in January would also be the same people on top of updating their withholding tables last year — this would mean that their withholding was more accurate and cause them to receive a smaller refund.

Additionally, many people hoping for help from the IRS in navigating the changes to the standard deduction, child tax credits, the alternative minimum tax and other taxes were out of luck for most of the month of January due to the government shutdown. That affected taxpayers even after the government reopened — the National Taxpayer Advocate found that the IRS answered 48 percent of its calls with a 17 minute average wait time at the start of filing season, compared to 86 percent and a 4 minute average wait time at the same time last year. In other words, there’s reason to believe that average refunds could rise as the filing season progresses.

Even the Washington Post awarded Harris’s comments a rating of “Four Pinocchios,” with Glenn Kessler calling her argument “a non sequitur that turns out to be nonsensical and misleading.” Of course, most bad-faith arguments do when you dive into them. Unfortunately, presidential campaigns tend to generate misleading nonsense on the grandest scale, and Harris’s tweet is just the latest example.

Andrew Wilford (@PolicyWilford) is a policy analyst with the National Taxpayers Union Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to fiscal policy analysis and education at all levels of government.


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.