by V. Lance Tarrance
Donald Trump is a man who throws down gauntlets, and he threw down several big ones during his campaign for president — confronting the status quos on immigration, on healthcare and on taxes, to name a few. He is now pursuing bold policy changes on each. But it could be Trump’s action on taxes that matters most to whether the stock market continues to ride high, GDP growth returns to a healthy 3% and, therefore, whether his presidency is judged well in posterity.
News about taxes has been relatively slow thus far in Trump’s administration. Judicial blowback against his immigration policies and Congressional blowback on healthcare reform have received far more attention than the general tax-plan principles he announced in April. Still, achieving detailed tax reform may prove even more difficult than his other policy struggles once the wheels start turning.
Before making tax reform a year-end goal, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin initially said he hoped to complete tax reform by August. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reacted by saying that tax reform is a “very complicated subject” and harder to do now than the last time Congress achieved it in 1986. And passing the 1986 tax reform legislation was no easy task — it required winning the support of a Democratic House and a Republican president, and took nearly two years of intense negotiations. Alluding more cynically to the significant political obstacles that often impede changing the tax code, former House Speaker John Boehner said the passing of a tax code overhaul is “just a bunch of happy talk.”
Now, however, current Speaker Paul Ryan is also pushing for tax reform by the end of 2017, making these obstacles appear a little less daunting than if the administration were going it alone.
Aside from whether tax experts and Washington politicians are willing to upend the tax code, it is important to note where the American people stand on the need for action on taxes. It must be remembered that taxpayers may dislike the current tax system but not be convinced that Congress and the Trump administration will make it any better — change could be worse. Without a strong push from the American people, Trump’s tax reform might not materialize.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Gallup tested several of candidate Trump’s tax proposals.
He advocated eliminating most federal income tax deductions and loopholes for the very rich, and Gallup found 63% of American adults favoring this with just 17% opposed.
His proposal to simplify the federal tax code — reducing the current seven tax brackets to four — was also popular, with 47% agreeing and only 12% disagreeing.
Trump’s plan to eliminate the estate tax paid when someone dies garnered considerably more agreement than disagreement from Americans, 54% to 19%. Notably, this is an issue that Congress and the wider public have considered in the recent past, and public sentiment on the issue today is in line with past Gallup polls on this issue, such as when it asked about keeping the estate tax from increasing in 2010.
More recently, in March 2017, Americans viewed President Trump’s general plan to “significantly cut federal income taxes for the middle class” positively: 61% agreed with the plan (with no mention of Trump in the question), 26% disagreed and 13% had no opinion. Trump’s proposal to lower corporate tax rates, however, elicited a split decision, with 38% reacting positively, 43% negatively and the potentially decisive 19% “no opinion” group apparently needing more information.
These findings suggest Americans could respond favorably to many of the specific elements of Trump’s ultimate tax plan, provided they make it into whatever legislation Congress winds up debating. For example, in spite of closing tax loopholes that favor the rich, the plan is expected to end up cutting taxes on the wealthy, not raising them. But as long as the plan also cuts taxes on the middle class, that fact alone is unlikely to sink it with Americans. Bush’s across-the-board tax cuts in 2001, which more Americans at the time said were a “good thing” than a “bad thing,” are a perfect illustration of this. full story