Key members of the new U.S. House of Representatives Republican majority have announced their intention to permanently extend the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA),1 which the Republican-controlled Congress enacted in 2017. Signed into law by then-President Donald Trump, the TCJA slashed taxes for corporations and the wealthy and on the estates the wealthy pass on to their heirs. The law permanently cut the corporate tax rate and changed the way the United States imposes taxes on multinational corporations. It also included a temporary reduction in personal income tax rates along with other personal income tax changes that expire at the end of 2025.2 Overall, the measure was projected to increase the federal deficit by about $1.9 trillion over 10 years, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.3 The wealthiest 5 percent of households received nearly half—42.6 percent—of the Trump tax cuts, with the top 0.1 percent receiving an average tax cut of $193,380 in 2018.4
Nearly all of the TCJA’s personal income tax changes sunset at the end of 2025. By including a sunset date, the bill was able to move through the Senate with no support from members of the Senate minority.5 This allowed the Senate to consider the bill using the reconciliation process, which requires that a measure not increase the deficit over the long term and that it fit within the reconciliation instructions—in this case, within the maximum deficit increase allowed by the budget resolution passed by the House and the Senate.6 Congressional leaders included an expiration date as a means to game the rules designed to impose fiscal discipline, as demonstrated by the fact that the vast majority of House Republicans approved a measure making the TCJA’s individual tax cuts permanent less than one year after the TCJA was signed into law.7
As part of his fiscal year 2024 budget proposal, President Joe Biden introduced a set of tax proposals that would reform and reverse some of the changes made by the TCJA and take ambitious steps toward ensuring that income from wealth is taxed comparably to that from work.8 Taken as a whole, the Biden proposal would substantially improve the equity of the nation’s tax code while raising revenues to support investments that will advance economic growth and opportunities and the well-being of American families. This issue brief examines and contrasts between the two sets of proposals, which offer starkly different visions for the future on the nation’s tax laws.
The TCJA provided massive tax cuts for the wealthy
The TCJA made sweeping changes to the nation’s tax laws—including some for low- and middle-income households—that provided the largest tax cuts to the wealthy.9 The law included four major changes expiring at the end of 2025 that were overwhelmingly tilted to high-income Americans:
- Cutting the top tax rate: The TCJA cut the top personal income tax rate from 39.6 percent to 37 percent on taxable income of more than $600,000 for married couples or $500,000 for single people or heads of households. The lowering of the top tax rate had no impact on the taxes paid by a middle-income household but did, for example, provide a $119,918 tax cut to a married couple with $5 million in taxable income in 2018.10
- Creating a new pass-through loophole: The TCJA allows owners of partnerships, limited liability companies, and other so-called pass-through businesses to escape tax on 20 percent of their income.11 Pass-through business income has skyrocketed in recent decades and is highly concentrated at the top of the income scale. From 1979 to 2019, total business income received by the top 1 percent of households rose nearly sixfold (587 percent).12 By contrast, labor income—wages and salaries—increased by 248 percent, and capital gains and other capital income, which accounts for the largest fraction of income received by the top 1 percent, rose by 152 percent. The 20 percent deduction effectively reduces the top rate on pass-through income for owners in qualifying industries from 37 percent to 29.6 percent.13 As a result, a married architect with $300,000 in taxable income from a pass-through business would pay $13,157 less in personal income taxes than a person with the same amount of wage and salary income in 2022.14 Recent research by economist Lucas Goodman and colleagues analyzing administrative tax data found “no evidence of any immediate ‘real’ responses to section 199A in terms of investment, employment, or wages.”15
- Dramatically reducing the alternative minimum tax (AMT): The AMT was designed to ensure that higher-income people who claim certain tax breaks pay at least some minimal amount of personal income tax. Prior to the TCJA, the AMT worked as a partial backstop; however, its ability to ensure that the wealthiest paid a minimum amount of tax was limited by the fact that it did not apply to income from either realized or unrealized capital gains.16 The TCJA substantially weakened the AMT by increasing the amount of income exempt from the tax from $86,200 to $109,400 for married taxpayers and from $55,400 to $70,300 for single filers. It also increased the income level—where the exemption begins to phase out—from $164,100 for married couples and $123,100 for single people to $1 million and $500,000, respectively, and indexed the exemption for inflation going forward.17 Taken together, these changes substantially limited the ability of the AMT to ensure that households claiming certain tax preferences paid at least a minimum amount of tax and dramatically reduced the number of households affected by the AMT. The Tax Policy Center, for example, projected that the number of AMT taxpayers fell from more than 5 million in 2017 to just 200,000 in 2018.18
- Lowering taxes on inherited wealth: The TCJA doubled the amount of wealth that can be passed on tax-free to heirs. The exemption, which was $11 million per couple in 2017, is now $25.8 million and is indexed for inflation.19 This change contributed to a reduction in the number of estates with any tax liability by roughly half, from to 5,185 in 2017 to 2,584 in 2021.20
Taken as a whole, the TCJA slashed the taxes of the wealthiest 0.1 percent of Americans by an average of $193,380 in its first year of implementation—more than 200 times the average $930 reduction for households in the middle fifth of the income distribution.
The TCJA permanently slashed taxes for profitable corporations
The 2017 law slashed the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent and shifted the United States to a territorial system of taxing the income of multinational corporations, which exempts certain offshore income from tax.21 Unlike the changes to personal income taxes, nearly all the corporate law changes were made permanent, signaling their importance to the drafters of the law. To date, there is little evidence that the corporate tax changes boosted investment or employment, as promised by the law’s proponents, or that the changes aimed at stemming offshore profit shifting have managed to do so.22
Wealthy households also disproportionately benefited from the tax rate cut and other corporate tax changes in the bill, which increased corporations’ after-tax rates of return.23 In 2019, the most recent year for which data are available, the wealthiest 1 percent of U.S. households owned 38 percent of overall equity holdings.24 Foreigners, who owned 40 percent of U.S. corporate equity in 2020, also benefited significantly from the reductions in the corporate tax.25
While the House Republican leadership’s approach would entrench the costly and regressive corporate tax cuts enacted in 2017, President Biden’s fiscal year 2024 budget would take steps to unwind them. The corporate minimum tax enacted as part of the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act is designed to ensure that large and very profitable corporations pay at least some minimum amount of tax, however far corporate taxes remain below their pre-TCJA level. 26 President Biden’s fiscal year 2024 budget proposal would modestly raise the corporate tax rate from 21 percent to 28 percent. And it would make important changes to the system of taxing profits of multinational corporations that would bring the United States into compliance with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s two-pillar framework, which establishes a global minimum tax on very large multinational corporations and penalizes profit shifting to low-tax jurisdictions.27
Extending the TCJA's temporary provisions would be costly and overwhelmingly benefit the wealthy
While the temporary provisions of the TCJA will mostly expire at the end of 2025, a number of House Republicans have already announced their desire to make the temporary changes permanent without offsetting these changes’ cost.28 Doing so would substantially add to the United States’ fiscal challenges by lowering tax revenues by about $3.1 trillion from 2027—the first full year that the changes would take effect—through 2036, equivalent to slight less than 1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).29 The additional cost of extension would come on top of the ongoing cost of the permanent changes contained in the bill, nearly all of which reduced corporate and other business taxes.30 The 2017 law changes, along with those from the tax cuts originally enacted under President George W. Bush, substantially increased the federal debt and are the major source of the rise in the U.S. debt ratio: the ratio of debt to GDP.31
The 2017 law changes, along with those from the tax cuts originally enacted under President George W. Bush, substantially increased the federal debt and are the major source of the rise in the U.S. debt ratio: the ratio of debt to GDP.
Making the 2017 changes permanent would also compound the damage done to the fairness of the tax code by extending large tax breaks for the wealthy and exacerbating inequities that enable them to shelter large shares of their income from taxation. The top 0.1 percent of households would receive an average tax cut more than 175 times the size of that received by middle-income families, on average—$175,710 as compared with $990, respectively, in 2026—and the poorest fifth of households would receive, on average, just $100. Moreover, high-income households would continue to benefit from the already permanent corporate tax cuts discussed above.
Biden tax proposals would increase taxes on the wealthy, expand tax credits for workers and families with children
President Biden’s fiscal year 2024 budget includes a set of proposals that would reverse many of the TCJA’s tax cuts for the wealthy and reform how the tax code treats income from unrealized gains.32 The Biden budget would also restore the child tax credit’s full refundability and expand the credit from $2,000 per child to $3,000 per child for children age 6 and older and to $3,600 per child for children younger than 6 years old. Taken as a whole, these proposals would, on average, result in lower taxes for the bottom 90 percent of the income distribution while significantly increasing taxes on the top 1 percent.33 Specifically, the president’s budget proposal would:
- Restore the top 39.6 percent tax rate for married couples with taxable income of more than $450,000 and single earners with taxable income above $400,000. The TCJA lowered the top rate to 37 percent.34
- Equalize the tax rate on capital income with the rate on work for millionaires. Currently, long-term capital gains and qualified dividends are taxed at a rate of 20 percent. The new rate would only apply to the extent that the taxpayer’s taxable income exceeds $1 million ($500,000 for married people filing separately) and would be indexed for inflation after 2024.35
- End the so-called stepped-up basis at death for assets that are passed on to heirs by taxing capital gains at death or the date of transfer.36 The proposal would also impose a 25 percent minimum tax on the total income of taxpayers with wealth exceeding $100 million. The tax would apply to income from unrealized capital gains and would function as a pre-payment of the tax that would ultimately be owed when the gain is recognized at sale or death.37 Taken together, these provisions would close loopholes that currently allow the very wealthy to avoid ever paying taxes on appreciated investments.
- Stem the abuse of tax-preferred retirement accounts by the wealthy. The president’s proposal would impose a minimum distribution requirement on tax-favored retirement account balances exceeding $10 million.38 It would also limit the ability of the wealthy to use so-called mega IRAs to avoid paying capital gains taxes and to avoid paying estate taxes on amounts passed on to wealthy heirs.39
- Close the carried interest loophole that allows investment fund managers to treat most of their income as capital gains—which are taxed at a lower rate—rather than wage and salary income.40 The change would apply to individuals with taxable incomes above $400,000.41
- Close loopholes in the net investment income tax (NIIT) that benefit high-income taxpayers with pass-through business income, ensuring that all pass-through business income is treated consistently with other investment earnings of high-income individuals. The president would also increase the NIIT and related Medicare payroll tax rate by 1.2 percentage points for those with more than $400,000 of income and dedicate the entire proceeds of the tax to boost the solvency of the Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund.
The TCJA doubled the size of the child tax credit from $1,000 to $2,000 per child, made the credit partially refundable, and phased it in faster, so that families whose incomes were too low to receive the benefit of the credit could receive some assistance. It also extended eligibility to higher-income families. These changes all expire at the end of 2025.
In 2021, the American Rescue Plan (ARP) temporary increased the credit for one year only to $3,600 per child up to age 6 and to $3,000 per child aged 6–17.42 Importantly, the ARP made the credit fully refundable and removed the income phase-in, making it fully available to families, including those with little or no income, who previously received a partial credit or no benefit at all. The ARP also allowed families to receive up to half of their credit as a monthly payment, making it available to help meet ongoing living expenses such as rent and groceries. The ARP’s expansion, which applied for one year only, resulted in a historic reduction in child poverty, lifting 2.1 million children out of poverty in the United States.43
The president’s proposal would restore the size of the credit to its ARP level, make it fully refundable, and establish a monthly payment mechanism.44 These changes would apply in 2023 through 2025 and correct a flaw that left families who could benefit most from the expanded credit with little or no assistance and help sustain the reduction in child poverty observed in 2021.
The Biden budget proposals address flaws in U.S. tax system that allow the wealthiest to avoid taxes
The president’s proposed minimum tax would address flaws that allow the nation’s very wealthiest families to pay a lower tax rate than middle-income families or even their slightly less wealthy counterparts. Recent research examines the impact of provisions of the tax law that provide preferential treatment for investment income and the fact that this income goes untaxed until an asset is sold. Taken together, these factors allow the wealthy to pay low tax rates year after year and, in many instances, to avoid paying tax altogether.45
Using a broader measure of earnings that includes income from unsold stock, economists Greg Leiserson and Danny Yagan estimated the average individual tax rate paid by the United States’ 400 wealthiest families and found that for the period from 2010 to 2018, they paid an average tax rate of 8.2 percent.46 This analysis takes into account the benefits the wealthy receive from the assets they own, as well as the tax preferences provided to realized and unrealized investment income.
A separate analysis by Martin Sullivan, using only income reported for tax purposes, compared the taxes paid by the superwealthy— those earning more than $10 million—versus their modestly wealthy counterparts and found the federal income tax to be progressive up until the very highest incomes.47 This analysis cites the wealthiest individuals’ very high share of income from tax-preferenced capital gains and dividends as the reason for the sizeable drop in their average tax rates. These households had adjusted gross incomes (AGI) of more than $10 million but paid a rate that was lower than that paid by those reporting $1 million to $10 million in AGI. Tax-favored capital gains and dividends accounted for the majority of the income of the superwealthy—57.8 percent in 2020, as compared with 37.6 percent for those with incomes of $5 million to $10 million and less than 4 percent for those with incomes below $200,000. The author of the study notes that the disparity would be even more significant if the income from unrealized gains is taken into account, saying:
Perhaps the absence of unrealized gain from the tax base wouldn’t be such a big deal if working folks and the rich all had unrealized gains proportionate to their taxable income. But nothing could be further from the truth. Most working folks have relatively small or nonexistent unrealized gains (except for gains on their personal residences). For the superrich, unrealized gains routinely account for an overwhelmingly large proportion of their wealth accumulation.48
Congress should not extend the 2017 Trump tax cuts. In fact, debate over the law’s future should revisit and reform its permanent changes to corporate tax law that have failed to deliver on their promises and that endanger the nation’s fiscal future. In contrast, President Biden’s fiscal year 2024 tax proposals outline an alternative vision that helps ensure that the wealthy and very large profitable corporations pay a more equitable share of taxes, supports families with children, and raises revenues to support critical investments and fiscal stability.
The author wishes to thank Kyle Ross for his assistance on this publication.