Politics & Policy

Democrats’ ATM, the AMT

Thank House Democrats when your tax refund is late.

A deadline looms today, and it will not be met. Unless Congress fixes the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), the IRS will have no choice but to print next year’s tax forms based on current law, which would force 25 million taxpayers to pay, on average, an unexpected, additional $2,000 in taxes.

If the AMT is fixed after today’s deadline, the Treasury Department announced in a letter to Congress, then the delay in printing proper IRS forms will create confusion for millions of taxpayers this spring and delay tens of millions of taxpayers’ refund checks by up to two and a half months.

Democrats are the ones responsible for this — for creating the tax in the first place, for raising it, and for failing to fix it in time. Most responsible of all for the current mess, and for Congress’s failure to act, is House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D., N.Y.).

The Alternative Minimum Tax was originally enacted by a Democratic Congress in 1969, in order to stop a handful of wealthy families from using deductions and loopholes to avoid tax liability altogether. But the high income threshold at which the tax is triggered was never indexed to inflation. In 1993, the Democratic Congress and President Clinton raised the AMT tax rate, but again failed to index for inflation.

As a result, inflation is carrying more and more workers across the AMT threshold each year. Congress, therefore, has had to “patch” the tax temporarily each year, raising the threshold at which it must be paid. If Congress does nothing, the government tax collections would increase through the AMT, dramatically and entirely by accident.

Republicans view the AMT’s expanding reach as a mistake. They passed a repeal of the tax in 1999, only to see it vetoed by President Clinton. In more recent years, they lacked the courage to fix it permanently because it would have invited screams of “tax cuts for the rich,” and made future deficits look much worse on paper. Yet when they controlled Congress, at least Republicans “patched” the AMT each year so that millions of taxpayers could avoid paying all that extra money.

Publicly, Democrats pretend that they, too, consider it a “mistake” for the AMT to ensnare roughly 25 million taxpayers. But their actions now speak louder than their words. They passed an AMT “patch” last Friday — H.R. 3996 — but it raises taxes on small businesses and entrepreneurs by $81 billion, in order to recover the revenue that is “lost” by not mistakenly ensnaring millions of Americans in the AMT.

With the Democrats’ so-called “pay-as-you-go” rule in hand, and under the guise of “fiscal responsibility,” Chairman Rangel is essentially blackmailing taxpayers: “Either support us in our mission to hike taxes, or we’re going to let the AMT have all 25 million of you!”

A spokeswoman for Rangel was sticking to this “fiscal responsibility” line on Wednesday, and indicated that the tax-hike bill that Democrats passed last week along party lines took care of AMT, and that was that. But the bill they passed has absolutely no chance of passing the Senate, and even less of being signed by President Bush — something of which House Democrats have been aware all along.

Senate Democrats are not happy about what their colleagues have done here. Even Democrats in the House resented that they were being pressured by their own leadership to vote for a large tax hike. “Why should House members have to walk the plank?” asked Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn), speaking to Congress Daily. “This is a 130 percent tax increase.”

Rangel does not appear to have thought this one through quite as well as he usually does. By failing to act, he may be putting his party’s pinkie finger on a new “third rail” of politics.

Everyone expects the AMT to be fixed this year for the same reason it always has been fixed in the past — failure to do it could cause a taxpayer rebellion. If, as appears likely, Congress fails to pass a real AMT fix before today’s deadline, it will probably be fixed eventually. But many taxpayers will end up with obsolete tax forms (12 different forms are affected by the AMT), creating a huge snag for the IRS. An astounding $75 billion in tax refunds to as many as 50 million people could be delayed for up to ten weeks.

That’s great news if you’re a government bean-counter, because you’re essentially getting an interest-free loan of $75 billion from American taxpayers. It’s very bad news, though, if you are a taxpayer trying to pay your energy bills, your child’s tuition, or your overpriced mortgage.

It might also be bad news if you are a Democratic politician who helped create the Great Tax Confusion of 2008.

–David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.


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