Candidates Spar Over Taxes

Editor's note: This article is the sixth in a series on issues in the 2004 presidential campaign.

Republicans say John Kerry (search) wants to raise your taxes. Democrats say George W. Bush (search) wants a tax policy that benefits only the rich.

The details of tax policy may be for the wonks, but because it hits voters in the pocketbook, it is a lively campaign issue, with both sides trading barbs on frequent occasions.

"I'm running against a fellow who has promised $2.2 trillion worth of new spending. That's a lot.  That's with a 'T.' That's a lot even for a senator from Massachusetts. So they asked him, how are you going to pay for it? How are you going to pay for it? He said, oh, we'll just tax the rich, raise the top two brackets. ... You know, he's one of the first — one of the few presidential candidates to ever promise raising taxes in a presidential campaign," Bush said Wednesday at a campaign stop in Rochester, Minn.

Kerry fired back. "[Bush's] four-year spending spree on tax giveaways for millionaires has undermined the hopes of middle class families and it has put Social Security (search) on a dangerous road," he told supporters in Pennsylvania on Tuesday.

Although it is often hard to sift through the rhetoric to find the truth, some clear distinctions have emerged in the candidates' plans. A bare-bones summary is that Kerry would repeal tax cuts on the top two tax brackets that were put in place by Bush and he would try to transform the corporate tax structure. Bush wants to see his tax cuts made permanent and also wants to try to reform the tax code.

Bush has not provided many details of what this reform would look like, other than saying that it needs to be simpler, fairer and ought to benefit small-business owners, married couples and families with children. At one point, he expressed interest in hearing more about a national sales tax to replace the Internal Revenue Service (search), but quickly went cold on the idea.

Bush points to his years in office as a sign of what agenda he will pursue. He has pushed through two major tax cuts — in 2001 and 2003. These cuts include the reduction in the "marriage penalty," the doubling of the child tax credit and the phase-out of the death tax. Last week, the president signed legislation that would extend the child tax credit, the 10 percent tax bracket and remove the penalty on married couples. Bush has said he would also like to lower taxation on savings and investment through expanding tax-favored accounts like 401(k)s.

One of the clearest contrasts in the candidates' tax policies is that Kerry wants to repeal tax cuts for families earning over $200,000 by raising the top marginal tax rates. The money would primarily go to pay for health care reform.

Kerry also wants to cut the corporate tax rate and offer incentives in the tax code to encourage companies to invest in America rather than abroad. Foreign profits would be taxed in the same way as domestic profits in an effort to eliminate any advantage to investing abroad rather than in America.

The Kerry plan would close corporate loopholes and use the savings to cut the corporate tax rate by 5 percent to make American companies more competitive. Kerry would offer tax credits to encourage employers to create new jobs. He would also offer a tax credit to businesses that buy health insurance for their workers.

Len Burman, co-director of the Tax Policy Center (search), a joint venture of the Brookings Institution and Urban Institute, said the rhetoric has not matched up to the reality in the tax policy debate.

Burman calculates that overall Kerry would cut taxes by $600 billion while Bush would slash them by $1.2 trillion. And while both men discuss fiscal responsibility, neither has a plan to accomplish it, he said.

"From my perspective as someone who worries a lot about deficits, I think they're both off base," Burman said. "I think it would be great for either or both of the candidates to take some leadership and say we have to make some hard choices."

Burman praised Bush for raising the issue of tax reform, saying, "I think it's good that he's talking about tax reform," but added that it would be extremely difficult for him to get it through.

He also said he was not holding his breath to hear the details of a "simpler, fairer" tax code, saying that the president is intentionally being "very vague because tax reform means inevitably people are going to be paying more taxes. He doesn’t want to talk about that before the election" because any tax reform would involve closing loopholes that would hurt a segment of the electorate.

Maya MacGuineas, executive director of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (search), which is housed at the New America Foundation, said that if either Bush or Kerry's reforms are adopted, the tax code would be much more complicated.

"A lot of the tax ideas they're talking about add complexity," MacGuineas said. "Every one of those targeted tax cuts adds complication."

MacGuineas would like to hear more details about Bush's simplification plans. He "should fill in some of the reforms he would like. Would he do continued incremental reform or replace the income tax with a consumption tax?"

Asked which candidate has the lead on the issue, MacGuineas said, "It's always hard to argue against tax cuts ... in that manner I would think you'd generally say President Bush has the upper hand." But, she added, "I think the mood is changing in the country" because voters are becoming increasingly concerned about budget deficits, believing that they are unsustainable and bad for the economy.

This criticism is not only for Bush, who has presided over deficits every year of his presidency, but also for Kerry based on his plan. "Neither candidate has met the goal of explaining how his tax cuts could be fiscally responsible," she said.

Fiscal irresponsibility is also a major concern for Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste (search). Although unhappy with the Bush deficits, Schatz said, "It would be worse with John Kerry."

"I would give a clear advantage to President Bush," Schatz said. "President Bush has not only promised, but delivered tax [cuts] every year and has also more seriously discussed reforming the tax code."

Schatz presented the Election Day choice as one that favored Bush. "It’s a question of whether you want to pay more and have the government spend more, or pay less and have the government spend less."