In two of the most shocking political upsets in American history, President-elect Donald Trump first navigated past a field of 16 Republican challengers in the primaries, then beat the formidable Clinton machine in the general election. An impressive feat in its own right, it’s all the more remarkable given Trump’s complete lack of political experience.
While many consider that “outsider” lack of experience an asset, it does make it difficult to project what a Trump presidency will look like. There’s no legislative or policy trail to follow, and this election process has been lighter on specific policy proposals and details than most election cycles.
One partial exception to that is in the area of tax reform, which was a persistent theme of Trump’s campaign. However, even there, the details changed as the campaign progressed. Three different versions emerged over time, with the last looking somewhat similar to the plan House Republicans published last June. The total value of Trump’s tax cuts, however, are massive — much larger than called for by the House plan. So while a significant cut seems almost certain, the exact size and shape are very much up in the air.
Despite that uncertainty, a number of key areas are worth watching as the tax debate begins in earnest.
Trump will be greeted by Republican majorities in both the House and Senate, which will certainly want to work with him to get some legislation passed quickly. But the Republican Congress will have its own priorities, as well as concerns over the impact of lower taxes on the deficit and national debt, so there’s bound to be some give and take. Still, the stage is set for significant change and a marked pivot away from the higher taxes of the past eight years. Here are some items to keep an eye on:
- Streamlining the tax brackets. Trump’s plan would replace the seven current tax brackets, which range from 10%-39.6%, with only three. A married couple would pay 12% on taxable income up to $75,000, 25% on additional income up to $225,000, and 33% on income above that. Those income levels would be halved for single filers.
- Eliminating the AMT and Medicare surtax on investment income. The Alternative Minimum Tax is a complicated second tax system that adds greatly to the tax preparation burden of many filers. The Medicare surtax was introduced with the Affordable Care Act, acting as a 3.8% additional tax on investment income. The net effect of eliminating these taxes, combined with the broader rate reductions, would be to lower the top effective federal tax rate from 43.4% (39.6% + 3.8%) to 33%. That’s a significant drop.
- Boosting the standard deduction but limiting itemized deductions and eliminating personal exemptions. Here’s the first point that could make higher-income filers squirm. Trump’s plan would raise the standard deduction from the current $12,600 to $30,000. But it would also eliminate the personal exemption and would cap itemized deductions at $200,000. If you’re a large family, losing those personal exemptions could sting. And generous donors who are used to their contributions being largely tax-deductible could be in for a surprise.
- Dramatic changes to business taxes. This could wind up being the biggest point of contention in the plan. Trump’s plan would reduce the corporate tax rate from 35% to 15%, and would extend that rate to all pass-through businesses, including sole-proprietorships, partnerships, and S-Corps. This is going to make Democrats scream, and the House Republican plan is considerably less generous, pegging the Corporate rate at 20% and the pass-through rate at 25%.
Here’s a quick explanation of the pass-through provision. A huge number of America’s small businesses are set up as one of these pass-through business types. This simply means that their business isn’t taxed (or is very lightly taxed) at the business level, but any business income earned “passes through” to the owners’ personal tax return, where it is taxed as personal income. This change would effectively reduce a high-earning small businessperson’s tax rate on business income from a maximum of 43.4% to only 15%!
There are at least two huge implications of doing that. First, it would mean the government would be missing out on a massive amount of tax revenue, at least if looked at through a static analysis (X dollars taxed at 15% rather than 35% or 43.4%). And second, it likely would unleash a wave of small business expansion and hiring like the country has never seen. It’s pretty widely accepted that small businesses account for nearly all of the net job creation in the U.S. This would be a shot of adrenaline right into that job-creation system. The question is how much that growth would offset the “cost” to the government of lower tax rates. Expect furious debate over this provision.
How to tax U.S. companies on profits earned overseas is another issue that could go a number of different directions. Trump’s plan calls for a one-time repatriation of corporate cash held overseas at a low 10% rate, but differences remain between the House, Senate, and Trump regarding how to tax international profits going forward.
- Repeal of the estate tax: The “death tax” has been a specific target of Republicans for years, and this might be the year it finally gets put to rest. It doesn’t raise much revenue (less than 1% of Federal revenue), and both Trump and the House
Republicans would like to abolish it. However, it’s symbolically important to the Democrats, so who knows if it might wind up as a bargaining chip and live on. At the current exemption levels of $5.5 million per person (effectively allowing a couple to pass on $11 million without tax), it’s not quite as hot a target as it once was.
Other areas of note
It’s not only taxes that are likely to see significant change under a Trump administration. Here are a few other areas of interest:
- Health Insurance
Repealing the Affordable Care Act is high on the priority list, but what will replace it? Agreeing on a new system built on Health Savings Accounts, the ability to purchase insurance across state lines, and letting states manage their own Medicaid funds is the trickier part. Republicans have been screaming about Obamacare for the better part of a decade; now is their big chance to show they have a better approach.
- Childcare Costs
Trump has proposed some broad changes to help working families pay for child care. Among these are a $5,000 tax deduction for childcare of children under 13, childcare rebates through the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the establishing of Dependent Care Savings Accounts, with potential government matching for low-income families.
- College Debt Relief
Trump has proposed replacing the several plans currently in place with a single plan that would cap federal student-loan payments at 12.5% of a borrower’s income for 15 years.
- School Choice
The details aren’t clear, but the idea is to “redirect education dollars to give parents the right to send their kid to the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school of their choice.” Also mentioned are the desire to end Common Core and return educational supervision to local communities.
Trump has proposed that for every new federal regulation, two existing regulations must be eliminated.
- Border security, Immigration Reform, Trade Review
These were the most visible and widely discussed aspects of the Trump campaign, and Congress certainly will want to weigh in on these controversial topics as well. The biggest potential for intramural fireworks is likely over current and proposed trade agreements, where many Congressional Republicans are “for” them and Trump is “against” them.
There are many things that can be said about President-elect Trump. That he’s dull is certainly not one of them. In all likelihood, neither will his time in office be. Buckle up.