The White House and Democratic leaders have announced that Congress will delay its efforts to extend soon-to-expire Bush tax cuts for low and middle income Americans until after the November 2nd elections. Republicans have expressed outrage and contend that the delay, along with the threat of higher taxes for top earners is contributing to consumer uncertainly and will further damage the economy. Democrats have countered with accusations of Republican strong-arm tactics including holding middle class tax cuts “hostage” unless their demand of tax cuts for all is met.
The fundamental issue at the heart of this raucous debate is whether or not taxes should be raised in the middle of a very difficult economic climate. Democrats want to extend the Bush-era tax cuts only to individuals making up to $200,000 and families earning up to $250,000. On the flip side, Republicans, as well as a number of conservative Democrats, want to see the tax cuts become permanent for all.
So what’s really going on here — why is a decision being delayed? As it stands today, Democrats are divided on the issue and Republicans are unwilling to consider anything short of a full extension unless they are afforded the opportunity for a fair and open floor debate on extending tax cuts beyond the middle class. Some suggest that Democrats do not want to debate or vote on the issue until they are sure it will pass (Senate party leaders have run the numbers and concluded that they do not have the 60 votes needed to pass the tax cut legislation before the election). It has also been suggested that not only do Democrats not want to endure a legislative defeat before the election but they also do not want to let go of the $700 billion that would be lost if the tax cuts were extended to higher income earners.
Interestingly enough, lawmakers aren’t scheduled to reconvene until November 15th and when they do, first in line on the Senate’s schedule is a number of non-tax issues which are expected to keep them busy until the Thanksgiving break. So does this mean they won’t get around to voting on these looming tax issues until December? If that is the case, this would leave the Treasury struggling to set and release 2011 withholding tax tables in time for the New Year. The Treasury normally does this in mid-November to give payroll departments across the country ample time to adjust their systems before January 1. Depending on how the Treasury winds up dealing with Congress’s ninth hour tax vote (or Congress’s potential inaction), it could have serious ramifications on the size of an employee’s paycheck come January 1.
Whatever the real reasons for our lawmakers’ latest antics, the end result is that we as taxpayers are left to wonder — are we facing tax increases come January 1? The bottom line is if Congress is not able to take action on the expiring tax cuts by year-end, most Americans will see a tax increase. So what is really at stake here?
- The 10% tax rate could all but disappear while other tax brackets would rise
- The so-called “marriage penalty” could return resulting in a reduced standard deduction amount and lower tax bracket thresholds (i.e., higher rates will apply at lower income levels)
- The child tax credit could be reduced from $1,000 to $500 per child
- The capital gains tax rate could increase from 15% to 20%
- Dividends could now be taxed as ordinary income
- The current non-existent estate tax could be reinstated with a $1 million exclusion and a top tax rate of 55%
- The federal gift tax rate could climb to as high as 55%
Clearly, the above scenario represents a highly unpalatable situation. I think it’s fair to say we all expect Congress will eventually do something but exactly what the final outcome will be is anyone’s guess. Many taxpayers have begun formulating strategies that will help them adjust to the new tax regime, but this lingering indecision on the part of Congress will most certainly leave many scrambling at year-end.