Obama picks fight on taxes, big or just symbolic
Some would raise big money. Limiting tax deductions for high-income families and small business owners could raise more than $200 billion over the next decade. Others are more symbolic, such as scaling back a tax break for companies that buy corporate jets.
The corporate jet proposal would raise $3 billion over the next decade, according to GOP congressional aides. That's a relatively small sum in the big scheme of Washington budgets, but Obama and Democrats call attention to it repeatedly in their effort to portray Republicans as defenders of corporate fat cats.
No matter how Democrats characterize their proposals as revenue raisers or plugging tax loopholes, GOP leaders oppose them all, arguing that raising taxes in a bad economy would only make matters worse.
"If we choose to keep those tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires, if we choose to keep a tax break for corporate jet owners, if we choose to keep tax breaks for oil and natural gas companies that are making hundreds of billions of dollars," Obama said this week, "then that means we've got to cut some kids off from getting a college scholarship, that means we've got to stop funding certain grants for medical research, that means that food safety may be compromised, that means that Medicare has to bear a greater part of the burden."
The White House has identified about $600 billion in tax increases it wants over the next decade. About $400 billion of them were offered as part of deficit-reduction talks led by Vice President Joe Biden. That would be paired with more than $1 trillion in spending cuts.
Some of the tax proposals are vague and budget experts have yet to calculate just how much they would raise. For example, limiting deductions for high-income families and small businesses could raise anywhere between $210 billion and $290 billion, depending on what threshold is established as high income.
Obama is proposing to eliminate $41 billion in tax breaks for oil and natural gas companies, raise taxes on investment fund managers by $21 billion and change the way many businesses value their inventories for tax purposes. The change in inventory accounting would raise an estimated $70 billion over the next decade, hitting manufacturers and energy companies, among others.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has given Congress an Aug. 2 deadline for raising the current debt ceiling, currently $14.3 trillion, to avoid defaulting on the government's financial obligations for the first time in the nation's history. He warns that a default could trigger potentially dire consequences for an already anemic economy, including higher interest rates, tighter credit and new rounds of job layoffs. The government hit the debt ceiling in May and has been juggling accounts since then to make all its payments.
Obama says he is proposing a balanced approach that spreads the pain among people who rely on government services and those most able to finance them.
While Republican leaders argue that raising taxes is bad policy, bad politics and too unpopular to pass the Republican-controlled House, several GOP senators have said they are willing to consider eliminating unspecified tax breaks to reduce the deficit.
Two weeks ago, 33 Republican senators joined a 73-27 majority to repeal a $5 billion annual tax subsidy for ethanol gasoline blends. On Wednesday, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said, "I would like to do away with special tax breaks but not legitimate business deductions."
But GOP leaders insist there is no support among Republicans to impose the kind of tax increases Obama is proposing.
"The president is sorely mistaken if he believes a bill to raise the debt ceiling and raise taxes would pass the House," Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said. "The votes simply aren't there, and they aren't going to be there because the American people know tax hikes destroy jobs."
Among the tax increases proposed by the White House and the amount they'd raise over the next decade:
— Limit itemized deductions, including those for charitable contributions and mortgage interest, for families and small business owners making more than $500,000. Under current law, if a taxpayer's top income tax rate is 35 percent — the highest rate — a $100 deduction is worth $35 in tax savings. For several years, Obama has proposed limiting itemized deductions for people making above $250,000 to 28 percent, meaning a $100 deduction would be worth only $28 in tax savings at most. That would raise $293 billion. Increasing the income threshold to $500,000 would raise "in the ballpark of $210 billion," said Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, one of the House Democratic negotiators in the Biden talks.
— Change the way businesses value their inventory, raising an estimated $70 billion. Current law allows businesses to lower their taxable profits — and their tax bills — by using an accounting method that can inflate the cost of goods sold. Obama proposes to phase out the practice, known as last-in, first out, or LIFO.
— Increase taxes on investment fund managers, mainly hedge funds and private equity firms, raising about $21 billion. Investment managers typically pay capital gains taxes on their fees, with a top rate of 15 percent. Obama wants to tax the fees as regular income, with a top tax rate of 35 percent.
— Eliminate about $41 billion in tax breaks for oil and natural gas companies. Obama has called for eliminating tax breaks for all oil and gas companies every year since he took office in 2009. The biggest is a deduction for production expenses that is available to all manufacturers. In May, the Senate rejected a smaller proposal that targeted the five biggest companies: Shell Oil Co., ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, BP America and Chevron Corp.
Associated Press writers Jim Kuhnhenn, Andrew Taylor and Laurie Kellman contributed to this report.