There is a serious case to be made that the U.S. income tax system should become more progressive. The average rate paid by the top 1 percent of households shrank from 33 percent in 1986 to about 23 percent in 2006. At the same time, the share of adjusted gross income claimed by that highest-earning sliver of American society doubled, from 11 percent to 22 percent. So, in principle, higher taxes for the well-heeled could make sense — as part of a broader rationalization of the unduly complex tax code.
But there is no case to be made for the House Democratic majority's proposal to fund health care legislation through an ad hoc income tax surcharge for top-earning households. The new surtax would hit individual households earning $350,000 and higher. It would start at 1 percent, bumping up to 1.5 percent at $500,000 in income and to 5.4 percent at $1 million. The new levy would begin in 2011 and is supposed to raise $540 billion over 10 years, about half the projected cost of health care reform. The rest of the money would come from reduced spending on Medicare and Medicaid — though the surtax for the lower two categories would jump by a percentage point each in 2013 unless the Office of Management and Budget determines that the rest of the bill has saved more than $150 billion.
The traditional argument against a sharp increase in the marginal tax rates of a very narrow band of Americans is that it could distort their economic behavior — most likely by encouraging them to put more of their money into tax shelters as opposed to productive investments. This effect could be greatest in certain states, such as New York, where a higher federal rate would add to already substantial state income taxes. The deeper issue, though, is whether it is wise to pay for a far-reaching new federal social program by tapping a revenue source that would surely need to be tapped if and when Congress and the Obama administration get serious about the long-term federal deficit.
That moment may be approaching faster than they would like. Even if Congress pulls off a budget-neutral expansion of health care, the gap between federal revenue and expenditures will reach 7 percent of gross domestic product in 2020, according to the Congressional Budget Office. And that's assuming that the economy returns to full employment between now and then. The long-term deficit is driven by the aging of the population as well as by growing health care costs, both contributing to Social Security and Medicare expenses. There is simply no way to close the gap by taxing a handful of high earners. The House actions echo President Barack Obama's unrealistic campaign promise that he can build a larger, more progressive government while raising taxes on only the wealthiest.
Obama praised the House bill this week without addressing the surtax. A far better way to pay for health care would be to end the tax break for employer-provided health benefits, a subsidy that not only artificially pumps up demand for expensive treatments but also disproportionately benefits upper-income earners. Eliminating or, at least, capping it would be good health care policy as well as good tax and budget policy. Pretending that "the rich" alone can fund government, let alone the kind of activist government that the president and Congress envision, is bad policy any way you look at it.
© 2009 Washington Post