This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
David D. Stewart: Welcome to the podcast. I'm David Stewart, editor in chief of Tax Notes Today International. This week: plans and priorities.
On June 9, the House GOP released its tax package for the year, a series of three bills that includes tax breaks for businesses and changes to some clean energy credits, among other things. However, the bill has not found unanimous support among House Republicans, as many are still unhappy with how the debt limit negotiations ended up.
As of this recording on June 20, the House Ways and Means Committee has approved the package, but it has not yet gone to the full House for a vote.
Joining me now to talk more about this is Tax Notes Capitol Hill reporter Cady Stanton.
Cady, welcome back to the podcast.
Cady Stanton: Thanks for having me.
David D. Stewart: Now I understand you talked with someone about this. Could you tell us about your guest?
Cady Stanton: I spoke to Steve Rosenthal, a senior fellow in the Urban Brookings Tax Policy Center at the Urban Institute.
David D. Stewart: And what sort of things did you get into?
Cady Stanton: We had a conversation about the GOP tax package that recently passed through the House Ways and Means Committee, including what provisions are included in the bills, the politics at play around the likely future for the package, and what the next few years hold for expiring tax provisions Congress needs to address.
David D. Stewart: All right. Let's go to that interview.
Cady Stanton: Hi, Steve. Thank you so much for joining us on the podcast.
Steven M. Rosenthal: Well, thanks Cady. Happy to be here.
Cady Stanton: Great. If you could, could you start us off by telling me a little bit about your background in tax policy and your current role?
Steven M. Rosenthal: Sure. I'm a tax lawyer and I've practiced in Washington, D.C., my entire career, and I've been in and out of government. I worked six years as a legislation council for the Joint Committee on Taxation, so I'm familiar with the legislative process, and in the rest of those years — my years in Washington, which is almost 35 or a little more — I was in practice, law practice, tax law, and now for the last decade I have been a senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center, and I research and speak and write on tax policy, and I've thought a lot about it.
Cady Stanton: Fantastic. We are here today to talk about the big House GOP tax package. Could you tell me a little bit about the big themes of this tax package that just passed through the Ways and Means Committee? What the general big topics are?
Steven M. Rosenthal: Well, the Ways and Means Committee reported out three tax bills, and you can tell from their titles what the Republican Ways and Means Committee wants as a talking point. The Build in America Act, which has a variety of business-favorable tax changes, the Small Business Job Act, which again has some favorable business tax changes, more aimed to smaller sized businesses, and then the Tax Cuts and Working Families Act, which purports to help working families by cutting their taxes. There's only one measure: It increases the standard deduction by a few thousand dollars. But those three measures are what the Ways and Means Republicans have now passed on to the House.
Cady Stanton: Starting with that Build in America Act, could you talk a little bit about what that has to do with provisions that have expired from the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act?
Steven M. Rosenthal: Well, the heart of the Build in America Act is to extend and renew provisions that were effectively repealed or cut back by the 2017 Trump tax bill. There is an expensing of R&E, research and experimentation, to allow immediate write-offs as opposed to five- or 15-year write-offs.
That was limited — those write-offs — over a number of years rather than expensing — that limit was added by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. There is an extension of the 100 percent bonus depreciation, and that's expensing for tangible property, not research and experimentation intangible property. Again, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act had limited that expensing and required depreciation over several years.
And, finally, another big revenue-raising measure from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act limited interest expense deductions for corporations, and the limits grew tighter and tighter over time. [In] 2022 they're now fully tightened, and now the Build in America Act would like to relax those limits and allow more interest expense deductions.
Those are the key elements of Build in America. I think that there's some fluff there, like trying to impose a special excise tax for certain foreign acquirers of agricultural property, like our FIRPTA rules, but nonetheless the Build in America Act really reverses earlier Republican tax policies, which maybe that could be the earlier provisions might yet be described as "don't build in America" if these are "build in America," but I don't think that's the case.
The earlier measures in the 2017 legislation were revenue raisers that were used to offset some of the expense of reducing the corporate tax rate from 35 to 21 percent. The Republicans in 2017 got that rate down really far, and they did so with some minimization of expense — still costs $2 trillion in 2017, but the revenue offsets [of] these three, the big ones, that will be overridden.
Cady Stanton: Well, jumping right off of that, let's talk a little bit about cost, especially given a lot of these are business tax cuts. Where does this legislation land in terms of cost, especially so soon after monthslong debate in Congress over raising the debt ceiling and the federal debt?
Steven M. Rosenthal: Well, cost is a funny thing because Congress counts costs in strange ways. I described to you the 2017 legislation that tried to reduce the cost of the bill, the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, by increasing taxes through these limits on depreciation and interest expenses. And now we're going to reverse those. And so what might have been viewed as money in the bank no longer is money in the bank.
Now mind you, we could talk about timing; the reversal of those measures only goes through 2025. Temporary. The Joint Tax Committee, my old haunting grounds, scored the three measures as losing about $250 billion over 10 years, but these large raisers actually expire after the first two years, and so they're not filling the 10-year budget window with losses. If you extended them permanently, they would lose more than $1 trillion, according to some estimates.
This is a pretty pricey approach and reverses whatever fiscal responsibility and frugalness you might have thought had existed by adding them in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. And, yes, there is a certain irony of the Republicans pushing for cuts to spending to reduce the debt but then returning immediately and cutting taxes, which obviously has the effect of increasing the deficits and the debt.
Cady Stanton: Even with the expensive nature of some of those business tax cuts you just described, the bill in total is estimated to cost about $21 billion over 10 years, so there seems to be some offsets there. What are the pay-fors that were included in some of this package that help to make that balance lower?
Steven M. Rosenthal: Well, good catch, Cady. I mentioned the revenue loss from the tax cuts is around $250 billion. Well, there is some revenue pickup here of about $225 billion, and that's from repealing a whole bunch of the green energy credits that President Biden obtained through the Inflation Reduction Act.
But nonetheless, the Republicans, in order to give some appearance of fiscal responsibility, have proposed revenue raisers stripping the code of the incentives to invest in green energy, something that the Republicans know President Biden would not accept, would simply reject.
It gives the appearance of reducing the cost by stripping these environmental tax credits, but I don't think anyone believes seriously that they have a chance of being enacted the law.
Cady Stanton: That's an important point. Another aspect of this tax package that really caught my eye was the Tax Cuts for Working Families Act and this bonus standard deduction. Could you talk a little bit about that, especially given that it's a pretty expensive aspect of this package as a whole?
Steven M. Rosenthal: Well, yes, it is quite expensive. As you may recall, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act effectively doubled the standard deduction. I think it went from $12,000 to $24,000 in 2017 or 2018 for a couple, married couple filing a joint return. Well, in this piece of legislation, the Republicans proposed to increase the standard deduction by another $4,000.
It's been inflation-adjusted, so I'm not quite sure what the number is above $24,000 — you're adding another four — but nonetheless, it's a pretty sizable increase. They've capped the increase; they phase it out for couples making more than $400,000. And so, to some extent, increasing the standard deduction is targeted to families and taxpayers with incomes of less than $400,000.
Now mind you, I say targeted: It's still not targeted as much as the Democrats would like. The Democrats argue that working families and those with children have been hit the hardest by inflation and most need relief. The Democrats would like to see any revenue expended or any loss of revenue from tax cuts be aimed at, say, working families through the child tax credit as opposed to a broader-based increase in the standard deduction.
Now, I keep using the term standard deduction. The legislation also changed the name of the standard deduction to guaranteed deduction. There's a lot of messaging in these bills.
Cady Stanton: You talked a little bit about what a likely Democrat reaction might be to cuts to the Inflation Reduction Act's clean energy credits in this package. Thinking a little bit more broadly, what is the likely future for the package as it stands now both as legislation in a possible vote to the full House and then beyond that?
Steven M. Rosenthal: Well, there are three separate bills that passed the Ways and Means Committee. They've now been vetted by the appropriate committee of jurisdiction in the House, and so they're ready to go to the Rules Committee to be combined and sent to the House as a whole.
Now the Speaker of the House [Kevin McCarthy, R.-Calif.] has been having some problems keeping his coalition together, and so it's always a great mystery and a case for excitement as to whether or not there'll be regular order, a measure reported out of committee going to the House, but the expectations are that it will be sent to the House and will be passed by the House.
I should note that out of the Ways and Means Committee, these three measures, tax measures which will later be combined, were approved on a strictly party-line vote, and expectations are, in the full House, there would be a strict party-line vote.
Now as you may know that the Democrats control the Senate by a thin majority, and so the same bill will not pass the Senate because the Democrats will oppose it. There are just too many provisions here the Democrats would object to.
That said, there are lots of provisions here that the Democrats would like. I think there's going to be bipartisan interest in tax legislation this year, probably at the end of the year, and we can talk about the measures in these bills that have bipartisan interest, but many of them do, if not most of them, have bipartisan interest.
Apart from the expense, there's always a question of how to pay for them. Again, the Ways and Means Republicans took a shortcut. They just said, "Well, let's repeal President Biden's favorites," and that's not going to fly at all.
The question is are there other revenue raisers that might yet be used to enact tax legislation that loses revenue but is of interest to both Democrats and Republicans, or could this all be further deficit-funded? That's an open question, but I think there's a lot of interest in tax legislation including large pieces of this tax legislation.
Cady Stanton: It struck me when you were talking about parts of this tax package that do have bipartisan support, one of them being that research and development expensing measure, that a lot of Democrats, including some high-ranking members on the Senate Finance Committee, have made it quite clear that passage of a business tax cut like that would also need to be accompanied by an expansion of the child tax credit in terms of things and areas that they're interested in.
Could you talk a little bit about that initiative and that attachment of expanding family support and welfare to a business tax cut as the research and development expensing one is?
Steven M. Rosenthal: Well, that's the deal in some form we all expect, but we've been expecting some deal of allowing businesses tax relief from these harsher measures from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. We've been expecting that for almost a year.
Last session, Congress could not strike the deal of allowing expensing for research and experimentation and for 100 percent bonus depreciation, and these interest limitations, these three measures, they could not strike a deal.
The Republicans strongly favored those and the Democrats strongly favored a refundable child tax credit, which offers a lot of help to working families irrespective of whether they have other income or other tax liabilities — they simply get a refund.
The Democrats viewed the American Rescue [Plan] Act of 2021 as very successful at bringing money to those who could yet need it. That is these working families through refundable credits, and it brought in a lot more help for a wider range of households.
Now, having said that, the Republicans strongly favor this business tax relief, and the Democrats strongly favor this child tax credit and refundable relief for working families. It turns out there are a whole bunch of Democrats that favor some variation of these business tax relief measures and there are a whole bunch of Republicans that favor more tax relief for working families.
You can see even this third bill that is purporting to be tax cuts for working families; it does in fact reduce taxes for many working families as well as many other families, high-income families who may have more investment earnings and the like. But, nonetheless, it's a variation of relief for families.
I think the Republicans are signaling that they would like to see some form of compromise. And I think many Democrats you can find they've also signaled that they're certainly willing to accommodate business tax relief if they get the child tax credits and the working family relief that they would like to see.
Having said that, the framework for a solution is out there. They couldn't get there last year. Can they get there this year? Again, the easy measures are the ones that lose revenue. Cutting business tax cuts and cutting family taxes and maybe allowing refundable credits, which are, in a form, a spending program — that's always easy politically to give away money.
The harder political carry is to come up with offsets, either tax increases or spending reductions. So that's often a stickler as well.
Cady Stanton: One of the other specific provisions within this tax package that has got a lot of attention has to do with the Form 1099-K reporting threshold. Could you tell me a little bit about the history of that threshold, why it's become such a pressing issue for this specific year, and some of the politics behind it?
Steven M. Rosenthal: Sure. The so-called Form 1099-Ks was first introduced in the 2000s, I believe 2008, and it required third-party payment platforms — PayPal, Venmo, eBay, and others — to report transactions to their business customers if the cumulative transactions exceeded $20,000 and 200 transactions for a year. I thought that was a sensible approach, but the thresholds were so high and that you could have Airbnb leasers making $100,000 a year but fewer than 200 transactions and not get any reports from their PayPal platform, say.
So as part of the American Rescue [Plan] Act in 2021, Congress lowered that threshold — $20,000 and 200 transactions — to just $600 cumulative payments from a platform. That matched what we do with other forms like the 1099-MISC and NEC and your W-2s; $600 is the standard threshold for reporting.
But it turned out that when Congress lowered the threshold, there were going to be a lot of reports. Congress in 2021 delayed the reporting to the 2022 tax year, with the first reports due in January of 2023, and there were a lot of objections by those who would have their income and payments reported to the IRS. And in my view mistakenly, the IRS responded to those concerns, those late concerns, by delaying by a year that lower threshold to $600.
The problem with that delay is if the IRS couldn't figure out from the time the threshold was lowered in March of 2021 to December of 2022, why are they going to figure it out over the next year?
And then, more importantly, we're going into presidential primary season, and this is a hot-button issue for lots of people, and it's not so much the burden, I believe — it's more the concern that the IRS will know that somebody's receiving income that's not being reported.
There are a lot of objections about burden and administrative complexity and things of that sort, but I don't think any of those are true objections. I think that true objection is people are afraid that they've been running a business or a gig on the side and not reporting their income.
Reporting by itself doesn't make or eliminate tax liability. We have tax liability whenever we have income, and you're required by law to complete your 1040, your tax returns, correctly. Unfortunately, when you have a cash economy and informal arrangements, those are easy to hide from the IRS. And I think a lot of people have been hiding their income, and so lowering the threshold really concerned them, and I think that was probably why they objected.
Cady Stanton: We've talked a lot about what's in this package, especially given that it's quite large, but it might also be interesting to consider what aspects of tax legislation or tax issues were excluded from the package. For example, since it passed the Ways and Means Committee, a lot of members of the House have been pushing back that this package did not include a raising of the cap for the state and local tax deduction, SALT.
Are there any other tax provisions that you were surprised weren't included or that you think could have an impact later on beyond this package?
Steven M. Rosenthal: Well, sure, there are always measures that members of Congress want, and Chairman Smith, I think, exercised pretty good control discipline to limit the measures that his committee would think about. Now, he, as a party-line vote, rejected every Democratic amendment. There were a dozen or more, but also there were some Republican measures that were left on the floor.
The chairman had introduced a punitive tax on taxpayers and businesses that came from countries that might yet want to enforce what is known as the OECD pillar number 2 pickup tax. When a multinational doesn't pay a minimum tax on its income, the OECD is trying to collect that tax or authorize countries to collect that tax.
As a matter of fact, the U.S. first introduced that notion, but the Republicans are very hostile to it and they've crafted a retaliatory tax from individuals or businesses that come from any country that tries to collect these pickup taxes. That's really popular amongst Republicans: Businesses don't like paying more taxes, and the Republicans certainly would object to them.
And then SECURE 2.0, the retirement reform package. There are a couple of technical glitches. There's something in the code to allow catch-up contributions to IRAs and the 401ks which Congress accidentally failed to authorize: The cross references aren't working.
There are technical corrections to prior legislation that I think Republicans and many Democrats would like. We'll have to see whether or not more will be added. I view the Ways and Means Republican effort here as an opening bid, and they need to get it past the House just to get in the negotiations with the Senate once they pass their measure.
Then we'll see more things like potentially some relief from the SALT cap, the SECURE 2.0 technical corrections, and others. I think there's a variety of other things that some industry constituents would like. So it could get larger later. That's certainly a possibility.
Cady Stanton: In terms of provisions within the bill that may have slid under the radar, could you talk to me a little bit about this aspect and provision on Form 1099 reporting and changing that threshold as well?
Steven M. Rosenthal: Sure. We have not seen much reporting on changing the threshold for 1099-MISCs and 1099-NECs from $600 to $5,000 and then adjusted for inflation after that. Many of your listeners might have received one of these 1099-MISCs over the years, and 1099-NECs, non-employee compensation, is a spinoff of the 1099-MISC.
These are forms that are distributed for consulting, if you have some consulting, if you have honorarium, say, if you have prizes. I once got a bonus for transferring my brokerage account from one broker to another. That $1,000 bonus turned out to be taxable income, which I had only discovered when I got the 1099-MISC that year. I told you earlier about the hostile reaction to 1099-Ks. The Ways and Means Republicans want to revert back to the old $20,000, 200 transaction rule for 1099-Ks.
But while they were at it, they decided independently through another proposal to increase the threshold for these payments from $600 to $5,000. I guess it addresses the question of, "Well, shouldn't all reporting be at $600? And shouldn't we have what economists label horizontal equity across different payments?"
They address that by lifting the threshold for other areas, although they did not lift the threshold for W-2 payments, which kick in once you make $600. This provision going from $600 to $5,000 I think was particularly egregious, egregiously bad.
The argument was I had never heard any complaints about from people who had received a 1099-MISC or NEC other than the unpleasant reminder that the tax liability was due, like when I got that brokerage bonus, but it's still the law and taxpayers like me try to follow the law, and if I have some taxable income, I want to know about it. Information returns often help the honest taxpayers as well as helping the IRS.
The argument that's made for increasing from $600 to $5,000 for 1099-MISCs is that it's been stuck at $600 since 1954. I don't think that's a problem because I think the administrative burden of providing these forms has dramatically been reduced over the years. It's very simple for a business to enter information on a computer and spit out forms and returns.
The first information return was 1917 for employee compensation of more than $800, and now we're at $600. Adjusted for inflation for 1917 for employee wages, that might be $100,000 or $200,000 before reports kicked in. That would be absurd.
I'm really concerned that these information reporting measures will divide our country into tax cheats and tax chumps, because a whole bunch of income, especially if you have informal arrangements or miscellaneous receipts, may now be unreported. That doesn't change the tax liability — it still exists — but if you keep the IRS in the dark without providing information reports, that's a problem.
Coming on the heels of the debt ceiling negotiations, which slashed $20 billion of the IRS's $80 billion that's going to be removed from IRS enforcement budget, well, this is a real problem in my mind.
Again, tax cheats love it, but the rest of us are chumps because we'll see how others are getting away without paying their lawfully due taxes only because IRS is in the dark. There's a superficial appeal.
Everybody worries about the IRS, and will the IRS catch me? It makes us all nervous, but I think it's populism run amok to undermine our tax administration for very simple reports that keeps everybody both informed and honest.
Cady Stanton: As we wrap up here, I would love to take a more zoomed-out perspective on what could be happening legislatively with tax and Congress over the next few years. Could you talk to me a little bit about 2025 and why that's going to be such a big, important year for tax legislation and deadlines for Congress?
Steven M. Rosenthal: Sure. 2025, Cady, it's a big year. That's because the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act made all the business tax cuts, at least the corporate tax cuts, that relief, permanent, and all the individual tax relief expiring at the end of 2025. Most importantly, the doubling of the standard deduction, that will go away starting in 2026.
If you look to this Republican tax package, the Ways and Means tax package, the extension of this business tax relief that had been limited by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act now will be also through 2025. Much of it expired, say last year, 2022.
The notion by the Republicans is to make 2025 a big year, and I think this business tax relief might yet be enacted, and I expect the 2025 deadlines to hold, assuming that Republicans and Democrats could strike a deal on the child tax credit.
But in that case, you can see a whole bunch of expiring tax relief both for corporations and for individuals in 2025. And there's always a lot of pressure on Congress when tax relief disappears.
In fact, that was what informed the Republicans in 2017 by making the corporate tax relief generally permanent, the corporate tax increases somewhat phased in, but the individual tax reliefs temporarily because the Republican Congress thought a subsequent Congress would not allow these tax cuts to disappear for individuals; that'd be too politically unwise.
That both kept the cost of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act down, but with the promise of later extension. So 2025 will be a big year, and that will be a big year because a whole bunch of tax cuts will force Congress's hands.
Now the big question, though, if you want to look at 2025 and then beyond, is we're just not collecting enough taxes to fund the spending that we all count on, and there isn't much interest in either Republicans or Democrats to tackle the big areas of spending — Social Security and other entitlements, interests on the national debt.
There's very little that can be done about all that. Now our spending lines up with all our peers, OECD countries, but our tax revenue, tax receipts as a percent of GDP, is much lower. We have a tax problem. We're not "taxy" enough to pay for the spending that we all demand.
In 2025, if we have a whole bunch of expiring tax cuts and tax relief, will those be allowed to expire? I don't think so, but how will we fund that tax relief? Or will we continue to borrow and spend, which has created a very large debt?
Cady Stanton: Sounds like a lot more questions than answers, not just this year with a tax package, but in the next few years and going into that big year 2025. Anything else about this bill or set of bills and its future that you think it's important for people to understand going into the next couple of weeks and months with tax legislation?
Steven M. Rosenthal: Well, I think that this will be a year-end surprise, and so we'll find out. I expect, in the course of things, we'll see the House pass these three bills combined as one, and then we'll see on the Senate side how they frame their legislation.
But, ultimately, we have to stay tuned until the end of the year. That's going to be hard on some businesses which have 2022 taxes, both that they've paid and yet have to pay, and not knowing whether or not the relief will be afforded to them.
But Congress can always retroactively extend that relief, and these tax measures also have been drafted to be retroactive. And so even if we go a few more months, I expect retroactive relief.
Not to say corporations shouldn't file their tax returns based on the law, not on base what they anticipate the law will be, but I think they'll be made whole.
That's looming in the future, some of the administrative difficulties, but the real largest issues are the 2025 issues that you mentioned and how we can expect to pay for raise taxes or pay for the services that everybody demands. That's a big issue, and we really haven't come to grips with that yet.
Cady Stanton: Sounds like a whole lot of wait and see, and we'll have to just see what happens. Thank you so much for joining us here, Steve. This was a fantastic conversation.
Steven M. Rosenthal: Thank you, Cady.
David D. Stewart: And now, coming attractions. Each week we highlight new and interesting commentary in our magazines. Joining me now is Acquisitions and Engagement Editor in Chief Paige Jones. Paige, what will you have for us?
Paige Jones: Thanks, Dave. The submissions period for the Tax Notes Student Writing Competition will be closing soon. Each year, we recognize superior student writing on unsettled questions in tax law or policy. Eligible students must be enrolled in an accredited undergraduate or graduate program during the academic year. Submissions are due by June 30. Visit taxnotes.com/students for more details.
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