Democrats Push for Agreement on Tax Deduction That Benefits the Rich
WASHINGTON — Democrats were readying an agreement on Tuesday that would repeal a cap on the amount of state and local taxes that homeowners can deduct as part of a broader $1.85 trillion spending bill, a move that could amount to a significant tax cut for wealthy Americans in liberal states.
But some liberals quickly balked at the emerging agreement, which would suspend a $10,000 cap on the so-called SALT deduction for five years, removing a limit that Republicans included in their 2017 tax package as a way to pay for cuts for corporations and the rich. The suspension would kick in for deductions related to property taxes and state and local income taxes accrued in 2021 and would run through 2025.
If it passes, the deal would be a major concession to a handful of Democrats from high-income states like New York and New Jersey who have insisted on lifting the cap, in order to win their votes for President Biden’s social policy and climate change package.
But liberal Democrats have scoffed at the push to include the costly proposal in the domestic policy package, particularly as party leaders have curtailed or eliminated other spending priorities as they pare down a $3.5 trillion blueprint to appease moderate and conservative-leaning Democrats.
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the chairman of the Budget Committee, blasted the repeal on Tuesday as a giveaway to the rich that went against the Democrats’ priorities.
“I think there is a compromise to be reached here, a middle ground, which says that for families earning less than $400,000, they can take a complete exemption, but not families earning more than that,” said Mr. Sanders, who had released a blistering statement criticizing the agreement. “What exists is unacceptable, and one way or another it will be dealt with.”
It remains unclear whether the agreement would apply broadly or if Democrats planned to impose an income cap to prevent the wealthiest Americans from receiving what amounts to a tax cut.
A straight repeal of the cap for every household that claims the deduction would siphon huge amounts of revenue from the federal government: about $90 billion per year, according to budget experts.
To get around that, the five-year suspension assumes that the cap is reinstated in 2026 for another five years, allowing Democrats to use a budget sleight of hand to show its removal as revenue neutral in the traditional 10-year window that lawmakers look to when considering a bill’s impact on the federal deficit.
Three people with knowledge of the emerging agreement described it on the condition of anonymity and cautioned that discussions were continuing. Details of the talks were first reported by Punchbowl News.
With Republicans opposed to Mr. Biden’s domestic policy plan, Democrats must win the support of all 50 senators who caucus with the party and all but three House lawmakers for the plan to become law. That effort is further complicated because Democrats are using an arcane process known as budget reconciliation, which shields fiscal legislation from the 60-vote filibuster threshold in the Senate.
Those restrictions mean that any lawmaker, particularly in the Senate, could effectively tank the legislation over his or her priorities, including insisting that the bill repeal SALT. Democrats from the high-income states that have been most affected by the limit have spent the past five years searching for an opportunity to roll it back for their constituents, despite complaints that it would largely benefit the wealthy.
House Democrats including Representatives Tom Suozzi of New York, Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey and Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey have made clear that they will not support the broader spending package without a SALT repeal. Mr. Gottheimer wore a large button emblazoned with the words “no SALT, no dice” to votes on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, has also voiced support for getting rid of the cap.
“We’ve been fighting for this for years,” Mr. Gottheimer said on Tuesday, adding that reinstating the full deduction would amount to giving “tax relief to families that deserve it and who got hosed in 2017.”
Delaying the cap for five years in a 10-year window could effectively allow lawmakers to claim that the proposal would not have an impact on the package’s cost. Yet some Democrats appeared confident that lawmakers would act again in five years to prevent the cap from going back into effect.
“It’ll be pretty clear when they get tax relief, it’s going to be hard to take that back,” Mr. Gottheimer said, referring to families in his district.
The SALT limit resulted in tax increases for wealthier Americans beginning in 2018, particularly higher earners from high-tax states, and helped Democrats capture some House seats that Republicans previously held in New Jersey, California and elsewhere.
The deduction is largely used by wealthy homeowners who itemize their deductions and live in states and cities with high taxes, which tend to be led by Democrats. Democrats accused Republicans of using the cap to pay for other tax cuts for the rich and to penalize liberal states.
“My guess is the majority of Americans with a net worth of $50 to $300 million would get a tax cut under the Build Back Better plan with a full repeal of SALT,” Jason Furman, an economist at Harvard who was the chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers under President Barack Obama, said on Twitter on Tuesday. “The bill would do more for the super-rich than it does for climate change, childcare or preschool. That’s obscene.”
But several lawmakers in the New York and New Jersey delegations have warned that their votes for the domestic policy package hinged on the inclusion of the provision, and Democrats have haggled for months over a possible solution.
“We’re still going at it over it,” said Representative Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts, the Democratic chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, who joked on Tuesday that he had earned “a Ph.D. in the SALT deduction because it’s been argued from every perspective I can think of.”
The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget described the repeal of the SALT cap as a “regressive” tax cut, estimating that it would cost $90 billion a year in lost government revenue. The wealthiest would make out the best, with a SALT cap repeal distributing more than $300,000 per household in the top 0.1 percent of earners and only $40 for a middle-income family over the first two years.
“With the SALT cap repealed and current tax rates retained, in fact, the reconciliation package might actually offer a net tax cut for most high-income households,” the group said.
The right-leaning Tax Foundation estimated that repealing the cap would increase after-tax income of the top 1 percent of earners by 2.8 percent, while the bottom 80 percent would get minimal benefit.
Republicans seized on the agreement on Tuesday, accusing Democrats of hypocrisy for backing an “anti-progressive” handout.
“First Democrats cut out paid leave,” J.P. Freire, a spokesman for Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee, said on Twitter. “Now they’re shoveling money to the rich.”