A phony issue

Posted: Tuesday, July 11, 2000

The following editorial appeared in today's Washington Post:

Congressional Republicans have scheduled votes this week on a sizable tax cut mainly for the better off, which they misleadingly describe as relief from a ``marriage penalty.'' The president has rightly indicated that he will veto the bill as it is likely to be presented to him. That suits the sponsors perfectly, in that the vote is mainly intended as a frame for the national nominating conventions that will be held during next month's congressional recess.

The Republicans seek to score political points as the tax-cut party. But on this one, the merits are on the president's side, and our sense is that the politics may be as well. The marriage penalty is a phony issue; the cost of the bill is high; the bulk of the benefit would go to people already quite well off, and there are better uses for the money - to shore up Medicare, for example. The president can be expected to make good use of all those points; he has set his own stage for that in advance.

The tax code does not penalize married couples. To the contrary, as a matter of long-standing policy it is tilted in their favor. A married couple at a given income level owes less income tax than a single taxpayer at the same level. The so-called penalty arises when two single people, each with income, marry. Their combined income is likely to move them into a higher tax bracket. That's what the fight is about; the issue is not the treatment of marriage but the progressive nature of the income tax. The marriage issue is a veil. If the sponsors succeed, you can bet their next target will be the ``singles penalty'' that they themselves will have helped to accentuate by lowering the taxes of married couples relative to single payers. The widow's penalty, they'll call it.

The proposed cuts are not even confined to people paying a ``penalty'' as the sponsors define it. About half of married couples - those in which one spouse earns the bulk of the income - receive a marriage ``bonus'' in that their taxes are less than if both were single. But they too would benefit; the sponsors hardly want to be accused of slighting the ``traditional'' family in which the mom stays home. About half the savings in the bill would go to such families.

The cost of the legislation would be a quarter-trillion dollars over 10 years. The president has said he would trade the Republicans: this bill for his Medicare prescription-drug benefit, which carries a similar price tag. It's the wrong trade; a drug benefit does not redeem the defects of this bill. The politicians, including the president, say there's plenty of money for both, but the budget surpluses to which they point are projections only, and in some ways highly artificial. Among much else, they assume that future politicians will exercise precisely the kind of discipline that these are prepared to abandon. An easing of fiscal discipline would likely also cause the Federal Reserve to tighten monetary discipline; this is a vote for higher interest rates at one remove.

The marriage penalty is little more than a slogan, a bumper sticker masquerading as serious tax policy. The vote this week is a political stunt that would mainly solve a non-problem while weakening the government's ability to fulfill its long-term obligations. The right vote is emphatically no.

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