There has been surprisingly little progress on tax reform, given the high hopes that so many had last January. On May 17 Republicans and Democrats from the Senate Finance Committee met with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn. The key takeaway seemed to be that the Senators want to pursue tax legislation on a bipartisan basis. That means committee hearings and, most likely, a very protracted process. Many already have suggested that tax reform can’t happen until 2018. However, enacting major tax reform in an election year would be unusual, because so much attention must be invested in campaigning.
President Trump’s tax proposals rolled out at the end of April, included the elimination of the federal estate tax, so that remains a possibility. In a statement accompanying the presentation of the one-page proposal, economics adviser Gary Cohn said: “The threat of being hit by the death tax leads small business owners and farmers in this country to waste countless hours and resources on complicated estate planning to make sure their children aren’t hit with a huge tax when they die. No one wants their children to have to sell the family business to pay an unfair tax.”
Cohn clarified that the repeal of the estate tax would be immediate, not phased in over a period of years. Democrats are likely to resist changing or eliminating the federal estate tax.
We are no closer to knowing the fate of the federal gift tax or the generation-skipping transfer tax, however. It has been argued by some observers that the gift tax must be retained so as to protect income tax revenues. No indication as of May on the fate of basis step-up, or the possibility of taxing unrealized gains at death.
What’s the hold-up?
One of the major stumbling blocks to getting to tax reform is the issue of “revenue neutrality,” the idea that all tax cuts must be offset by tax increases elsewhere in the Tax Code so that net federal tax collections remain unchanged. That was the model for the Tax Reform Act of 1986; it was not the approach used for the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, which helped to break a long period of stagflation. In fact, ERTA turned into a bipartisan stampede once the ball got rolling.
The cause of tax reform may have been set back when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced in May that only a revenue-neutral tax bill could pass the Senate. He did not identify any “pay-fors” to offset tax breaks expected to foster better economic growth. The proposal put forth by President Trump, even though it lacks critical details, has been judged to “lose” as much as $7 trillion over its first ten years.
What happens when the stock market bulls realize that corporate tax reform is not in the cards this year? Wait and see.
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