In Push to Tax the Rich, White House Spotlights Billionaires’ Tax Rates

In Push to Tax the Rich, White House Spotlights Billionaires’ Tax Rates

WASHINGTON — President Biden is leaning into his push to increase taxes on the rich as he seeks to unify Democrats in the House and Senate behind a $3.5 trillion bill that would expand federal efforts to fight climate change, reduce the cost of child care, expand educational access, reduce poverty and more.

“I’m sick and tired of the super-wealthy and giant corporations not paying their fair share in taxes,” Mr. Biden wrote on Twitter on Wednesday, amplifying an argument that Democratic strategists believe will help sell his economic agenda to the public and potentially lift the party’s candidates in midterm elections. “It’s time for it to change.”

To buttress that argument, White House economists published on Thursday a new analysis that seeks to show a gap between the tax rate that everyday Americans face and what the richest owe on their vast holdings.

The analysis suggests that the wealthiest 400 households in America — those with net worth ranging between $2.1 billion and $160 billion — pay an effective federal income tax rate of just over 8 percent per year on average. The White House is basing that tax rate on calculations using data on high earners’ income, wealth and taxes paid from the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances.

The analysis, from researchers at the Office of Management and Budget and the Council of Economic Advisers, is an attempt to bolster Mr. Biden’s claims that billionaires are not paying what they actually should owe in federal taxes, and that the tax code rewards wealth, not work.

Understand the Infrastructure Bill

  • One trillion dollar package passed. The Senate passed a sweeping bipartisan infrastructure package on Aug. 10, capping weeks of intense negotiations and debate over the largest federal investment in the nation’s aging public works system in more than a decade.
  • The final vote. The final tally in the Senate was 69 in favor to 30 against. The legislation, which still must pass the House, would touch nearly every facet of the American economy and fortify the nation’s response to the warming of the planet.
  • Main areas of spending. Overall, the bipartisan plan focuses spending on transportation, utilities and pollution cleanup.
  • Transportation. About $110 billion would go to roads, bridges and other transportation projects; $25 billion for airports; and $66 billion for railways, giving Amtrak the most funding it has received since it was founded in 1971.
  • Utilities. Senators have also included $65 billion meant to connect hard-to-reach rural communities to high-speed internet and help sign up low-income city dwellers who cannot afford it, and $8 billion for Western water infrastructure.
  • Pollution cleanup: Roughly $21 billion would go to cleaning up abandoned wells and mines, and Superfund sites.

“While we have long known that billionaires don’t pay enough in taxes, the lack of transparency in our tax system means that much less is known about the income tax rate that they do pay,” administration officials wrote in a blog post the budget office released accompanying the analysis.

The White House’s calculation of what the wealthiest pay in taxes is well below what other analyses have found. The difference comes from the White House officials’ decision to count the rising value of wealthy Americans’ stock portfolios — which is not taxed on an annual basis — as income. It finds that between 2010 and 2018, those top 400 households, when including the rising value of their wealth, earned a combined $1.8 trillion and paid an estimated $149 billion in federal individual income taxes.

Most measures of tax rates do not use the White House method of counting asset gains as annual income.

The independent Tax Policy Center in Washington estimated this year that in 2015, the highest-earning 1,400 households in the country paid an average effective tax rate of about 24 percent, compared with an average rate of about 14 percent for all taxpayers.

The White House economists — Greg Leiserson, senior economist at the Council of Economic Advisers, and Danny Yagan, the chief economist at the budget office — wrote that their calculation of low tax rates for the very wealthy flows from two types of preferential treatment for certain income in the tax code. The federal government taxes income from wages at a higher rate than income from investments, and most wealthy households report a significantly larger share of their income from capital gains and dividends than typical taxpayers do.

Biden’s 2022 Budget

The 2022 fiscal year for the federal government begins on October 1, and President Biden has revealed what he’d like to spend, starting then. But any spending requires approval from both chambers of Congress. Here’s what the plan includes:

  • Ambitious total spending: President Biden would like the federal government to spend $6 trillion in the 2022 fiscal year, and for total spending to rise to $8.2 trillion by 2031. That would take the United States to its highest sustained levels of federal spending since World War II, while running deficits above $1.3 trillion through the next decade.
  • Infrastructure plan: The budget outlines the president’s desired first year of investment in his American Jobs Plan, which seeks to fund improvements to roads, bridges, public transit and more with a total of $2.3 trillion over eight years.
  • Families plan: The budget also addresses the other major spending proposal Biden has already rolled out, his American Families Plan, aimed at bolstering the United States’ social safety net by expanding access to education, reducing the cost of child care and supporting women in the work force.
  • Mandatory programs: As usual, mandatory spending on programs like Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare make up a significant portion of the proposed budget. They are growing as America’s population ages.
  • Discretionary spending: Funding for the individual budgets of the agencies and programs under the executive branch would reach around $1.5 trillion in 2022, a 16 percent increase from the previous budget.
  • How Biden would pay for it: The president would largely fund his agenda by raising taxes on corporations and high earners, which would begin to shrink budget deficits in the 2030s. Administration officials have said tax increases would fully offset the jobs and families plans over the course of 15 years, which the budget request backs up. In the meantime, the budget deficit would remain above $1.3 trillion each year.

Mr. Leiserson and Mr. Yagan noted that “the wealthy can choose when their capital gains income appears on their income tax returns and even prevent it from ever appearing.”

“If a wealthy investor never sells stock that has increased in value, those investment gains are wiped out for income tax purposes when those assets are passed on to their heirs under a provision known as stepped-up basis,” they wrote.

Mr. Biden has proposed changing both those tax treatments. He would raise the capital gains rate to match the rate paid on wage income. And he would eliminate the stepped-up basis provision for wealthy heirs.

But Democrats in Congress have already pushed back on both efforts. The House Ways and Means Committee approved a tax plan this month for the spending bill that left the stepped-up basis provision intact and raised the capital gains rate by much less than Mr. Biden proposed.

Administration officials did not provide, in their analysis or accompanying blog post, any estimate of how much more the wealthy would pay in taxes if Mr. Biden’s full tax plan was implemented.

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