Opinion

WILFORD: What Should Voters Make Of 2020 Democratic Tax Proposals?

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Andrew Wilford National Taxpayers' Union Foundation
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This is the phase of the presidential primaries where voters familiarize themselves with the candidates’ platforms. That’s hard enough under normal circumstances, but the 2020 Democratic primary has too many cooks in the kitchen, and they’re all throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. Despite the deluge of news articles about new candidate “plans,” it’s hard to step back and know what any candidate would actually do if elected.

Possibly the worst offender in this regard is Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. A candidate that bills herself as a “policy wonk” with a “plan for everything” (a self-designation the media has dutifully lapped up), Warren certainly does not lack for proposals. On the tax side alone, she has proposed higher corporate taxes, a punishing wealth tax, higher estate taxes, and a tax hike on virtually everyone in the form of repealing the recent tax reform law.

But even that doesn’t constitute the entirety of Warren’s ideal scenario, where she somehow manages to pass all of her spending proposals and needs to fund them. “Medicare-for-all” alone would cost at least $34 trillion over 10 years, an amount that would far exceed any funds that her currently-proposed tax plans would raise. Warren’s campaign has promised that it will explain how it will pay for Medicare-for-all soon, but it would certainly have to include substantial tax hikes on the middle-class to be even remotely viable.

Other candidates have plenty of tax plans of their own. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has proposed substantially higher tax rates on higher income brackets, up to a top rate of 52 percent. He has also proposed an 11.5 percent payroll tax increase split between workers and employers, raising taxes and depressing wages for Americans across the country. He has also proposed estate tax hikes, a wealth tax of his own, corporate tax increases, and new taxes on stock trades. Even so, all of these proposals only succeed in raising just under half the revenue needed to finance Medicare-for-all, let alone all the other spending plans he has dreamed up. Even if taxpayers can be certain of little else, they can be sure that this smorgasbord of tax increases isn’t all they’d be on the hook for were Medicare-for-all to be passed.

And that’s just the Medicare-for-all candidates. Every major candidate is promising to eliminate the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, but most have avoided getting into the details and saying if there are any provisions they would keep. Joe Biden is promising many tax changes, including higher taxes on the wealthy and an expanded child tax credit. Kamala Harris proposed a working- and middle-class tax credit, then confused everyone with another weirdly specific tax credit for “Pell Grant recipients who start a business that operates for three years in disadvantaged communities.”

To understand why candidates engage in this kind of scattershot policy planning, it’s important to remember that presidents do not have nearly as much influence over fiscal policy as election season campaigning would have you believe. Even when election winners manage to pass landmark legislation that they hinted at during their campaigns, the results are often very different from what they campaigned on once the sausage-making process is finished.

For example, Donald Trump’s tax plan released around this time last election cycle looks very different from the tax reform law he eventually did sign. President Trump proposed four tax brackets (that number remained at seven), a top tax rate of 25 percent (the top rate is currently 37 percent), and a corporate tax rate of 15 percent (the corporate tax rate was cut, but only to 21 percent). Even when presidents enjoy a Congress stocked with members of the same party, they are still subject to the legislative process, with its quirks and the significant power held by minority parties.

The unfortunate byproduct is that policy proposals at this stage of the campaign are so numerous and overlapping that it all turns into a lot of white noise for voters. “Plans” and transparency with taxpayers are well and good, but the Democratic primary process has devolved into a constant battle to churn out new proposals as fast as possible in order to generate headlines. That leaves voters less informed about what candidates actually want to do, not more.

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.