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NTU Rates Congress and Presidential Candidates
Posted By: Andrew Moylan - 02/24/12

*Important note: NTU has not endorsed and will not be endorsing any Presidential candidate, nor is this post intended to suggest support or opposition for any Presidential candidate.*

There's been a lot of attention paid to NTU's annual Rating of Congress recently with regard to the Republican Presidential candidates. Since 1979, NTU has performed an annual Rating of Congress where we look at every vote on tax and fiscal policy, weight it from 1 to 100 based on importance, and calculate a percentage score indicating a Member's support for limited government (We did ratings before 1979 too but used a "key vote" system that's not directly comparable to our modern Rating). You can look at the entire record post-1992 (the year we began issuing letter grades) on our website, and our 2011 analysis will be available in a few weeks.

To clarify the record given the recent coverage, we released this statement yesterday where we published the entire Rating history for Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, and Newt Gingrich going back to 1979.

In last night's debate, Rick Santorum cited NTU in an exchange with Ron Paul...

"Ron, The Weekly Standard just did a review, looking at the National Taxpayers Union, I think, Citizens Against Government Waste, and they measured me up against the other 50 senators who were serving when I did and they said that I was the most fiscally conservative senator in the Congress in the -- in the 12 years that I was there.

My -- my ratings with the National Taxpayers Union were As or Bs."

The analysis to which Santorum is referring was performed by Jeffrey Anderson, a writer for the conservative Weekly Standard. Anderson did a couple of interesting things with the data, some of which I think are insightful and some of which I think are misguided. I'll try to lay my thoughts out in detail here, but it would really behoove you to go read his piece first for reference.

The first thing Anderson did was to confine his comparison of Santorum only to other Senators that served the entirety of his twelve year tenure in the Senate (from 1995 to 2006). While I suppose he would say he was trying to compare apples to apples, I think the end result is a bit of data cherry-picking which paints Santorum in a more positive light than would otherwise be the case. This restriction necessarily compares Santorum only to long-serving Senators, many of whom (like Robert Byrd or Daniel Akaka) had decidedly poor records based on NTU's metrics.

Anderson also converted each Senator's letter grade to a "grade point average," not unlike that which terrified you during your high school days. Anderson's conversion yielded a GPA of 3.66 on a 4-point scale for Santorum, a result which sounds quite good to anyone who remembers college applications. The problem with this is that it converts a short-hand measurement intended to give readers a general sense of a Senator's voting record to a precise number when our analysis already has precise numbers that do a better job. For example, Santorum's lifetime average score out of a maximum of 100% was 75.2%, including his House and Senate years. His Senate-only average was about 77.7%.

Another very instructive metric that doesn't garner quite enough attention, in my view, is the average rank. In addition to letter grades and percentage scores, we indicate how a Member compared to his or her peers by including their rank within the Chamber. To illustrate how useful it can be, look at Santorum's last year in the Senate, 2006. He received a grade of B+ and a score of 80%, but how did that compare with his peers? Well, it yielded a rank of 27th out of 100 Senators, meaning that 26 Senators had more conservative voting records that year and 72 had less conservative voting records. Santorum's average rank in the Senate was 19.5, which reflects a decent record (after all, he never received a grade worse than a B) but also one with a fair amount of variance (he ranked as high as 3rd overall in 2002 and as low as 33rd overall in 1999). Perhaps I'm biased because I work on the Rating, but I think these numbers are more instructive than the converted short-hand GPA from Anderson's analysis.

Beyond these quirks, Anderson actually did something quite interesting in comparing Santorum's voting record to how conservative (or not conservative, in this case) his state was...

"Based on how each state voted in the three presidential elections over that period (1996, 2000, and 2004), nearly two-thirds of senators represented states that were to the right of Pennsylvania.  In those three presidential elections, Pennsylvania was, on average, 3 points to the left of the nation as a whole.  Pennsylvanians backed the Democratic presidential nominee each time, while the nation as a whole chose the Republican in two out of three contests.

Among the roughly one-third of senators (18 out of 50) who represented states that — based on this measure — were at least as far to the left as Pennsylvania, Santorum was the most fiscally conservative.  Even more telling was the canyon between him and the rest.  After Santorum’s overall 3.66 GPA, the runner-up GPA among this group was 2.07, registered by Olympia Snowe (R., Maine).  Arlen Specter, Santorum’s fellow Pennsylvania Republican, was next, with a GPA of 1.98.  The average GPA among senators who represented states at least as far left as Pennsylvania was 0.52 — or barely a D-.

But Santorum also crushed the senators in the other states.  Those 32 senators, representing states that on average were 16 points to the right of Pennsylvania in the presidential elections, had an average GPA of 2.35 — a C+."

This is a rather novel way to look at things, and one I'd admit hadn't really occurred to me before. It is, of course, true that a Republican Senator from Utah can "afford" to vote in a much more conservative manner than a Republican Senator from Massachusetts and still keep his or her job. The cynic in me decries the fact that politicians test the winds before casting votes, but it is an undeniable fact of life and it manifests itself time and again in Congress.

While I've spent most of this post talking about Rick Santorum, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Ron Paul, with whom Santorum had the debate exchange. On our Congressional Rating, Ron Paul is almost without peer. His lifetime average is over 90%, he has snagged the top spot four times, ranked 2nd overall seven times and has never ranked lower than 10th overall in the House. In other words, in his "worst" year on our Rating, he still had a more fiscally conservative voting record than 425 out of 435 Representatives. I haven't done any in-depth analysis on this question, but the only Members I can think of that could claim to equal his performance would be Jeff Flake (92.4% lifetime average, 1st overall eight years in a row, never lower than 2nd overall) and Jim Sensenbrenner (85.9% lifetime average, 1st overall twice, 2nd overall four times, never lower than 13th overall).

The only issues I can think of on which Ron Paul might have harmed (obviously only by a very small amount) his Rating would be free trade agreements (which he generally votes against and NTU supports) and the myriad earmark elimination amendments that Jeff Flake carried from 2006-2009 (which NTU supported and he generally voted against). But on the whole, his record is exemplary.

Hopefully this is helpful in adding to the debate, and stay tuned for our 2011 Congressional Rating release in a few weeks.

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Obama's Tax Plan Gets Problems Right, Solution Wrong
Posted By:  - 02/23/12

President Obama’s recently released “framework” for corporate tax reform is a hard document to pin down. On the one hand, it does an excellent job at describing the problems with the current system and laying out the case for broad-based reform. On the other, the solutions it offers would oftentimes only exacerbate the underlying problems. It’s as if President Obama and his team are excellent diagnosticians, but terrible surgeons. Their plan for tax reform is akin to properly diagnosing appendicitis and then deciding to remove your liver.

One of the primary problems, among the several we listed yesterday, is the creation of a minimum foreign tax on multinational companies. Rather than bring businesses, and therefore revenue, to our shores, this policy would only make us less competitive in the global economy.

Obama begins by saying the right things.

“The United States now essentially trades off greater tax expenditures, loopholes, and tax planning for a higher statutory corporate tax rate relative to other countries. This is a poor trade that produces a tax system that is uncompetitive relative to other countries, distorts business decision making, and slow economic growth.

In recent years, our major trading partners have overhauled their tax codes, lowered their statutory corporate tax rates, and in some cases broadened their tax bases. The United States has not enacted similar reforms, leaving the United States with the second highest statutory tax rate among advanced countries. In April 2012, after the scheduled reductions in Japanese tax rates go into effect, the United States will have the highest statutory corporate income tax rate in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Economic Development (OECD).”

A nearly perfect diagnosis for the tax sickness that ails America. Moreover, it practically telegraphs what the administration should do to ameliorate those problems: close loopholes and follow the OECD trend towards lower rates and territoriality.

And then they begin the surgery…

On the issue of closing loopholes the framework does more harm than good. According to research conducted by the Tax Foundation the proposal would close six loopholes, out of around 250, while adding 11 – for a net loophole gain of 6. Not exactly progress on the road to simplifying the Tax Code.

The plan does succeed at lowering the corporate rate from 35 to 28 percent. Certainly progress, but not exactly a cure given the diagnosis of “a tax system that is uncompetitive relative to other countries,” especially since other nations continue to make progress in lowering their tax burdens. Even with the 7 percent rate cut that Obama envisions, the U.S. combined rate (federal and state taxation included) would still be 32.6 percent. That would move us from the having the highest corporate tax rate to the fourth highest among the OECD.

Perhaps worst of all, especially for international competitiveness, is the idea to create a “minimum foreign tax” that would raise the tax penalty on overseas profits.

Our current tax system is certainly broken. The high corporate rate coupled with a worldwide system penalizes American companies with burdensome rates. To ameliorate this problem our Tax Code allows firms to defer paying taxes on foreign profits until those profits are “repatriated” to our shores. Since our taxes are so high businesses are incentivized to park their cash elsewhere, leading to less investment and fewer jobs in the United States.

Rather than opt for the carrot of introducing truly competitive rates, Obama’s plan would use the stick of a new minimum foreign tax on business earnings abroad. But the result, especially when judged on the “fairness” rubric, isn’t the cure America needs. Essentially, this would mean that U.S.-based companies doing business abroad would face a tax hike, while foreign-based companies doing business in the U.S would see their tax rate cut. Rather than attract new companies and investment to our shore this would only incentivize them to set up shop in a more tax friendly locale.

So over all a good diagnosis of the problem. But let’s make sure to get a second opinion before anyone breaks out a scalpel.

 

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Warren Buffet Can Pay More Taxes Already!
Posted By: Douglas Kellogg - 02/22/12

From the State of the Union Address to this Piers Morgan interview with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Warren Buffett's plea for higher taxes on the so-called "rich" continues to come up. Governor Christie took the opportunity to remind Mr. Buffett he can submit additional payment to the U.S. government without throwing job creators under the bus. He can simply visit the Treasury website and the address and instructions for submitting payment are right there.

The Buffett situation is clearly a rare example. If it were such a widespread problem, there would have been an army of secretaries at the State of the Union, or perhaps a White House photo op. But of course, most secretaries do not make in the neighborhood of $200,000 per year or more, as Forbes estimates Buffet's employee does. In reality, this is like saying a "waiter" pays more income taxes than a "media personality", without pointing out one works at a high end restaurant in Manhattan and the other is a radio weather guy in small town Idaho.

This situation may be largely irrelevant for meaningful policy changes, however, the President seems to be using it for cover as he looks to implement major hikes in investment oriented taxes. As the Wall Street Journal reports, one of Obama's plans would jack the tax rate on dividends to 44%! While a few "Buffetts" may be hit by this, many investors and retirees who are definitely nont 'super rich' could be crushed by the President's budget plans. 

Taxpayers are always the group that sees the bottom line of the political battles in the media. Hopefully tragedy can be averted before a bunch of real secretaries who are investing for retirement are hit with this "Buffett-Obama tax hike."

 

 

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Tax Hikes Go Back to the Future
Posted By: Andrew Moylan - 02/07/12

Today, the Senate Finance Committee is marking up their transportation bill with an eye toward adding billions in tax increases to cover the overspending in the bill. More spending, more tax hikes to pay for it. Stop me if you've heard this before. But there are two proposals in particular that gave me a little bit of policy deja vu.

First, the so-called "Chairman's mark" includes a $3 billion retroactive tax increase targeting the "carrying forward" of credits claimed back in 2009. You might remember 2009 as the year before the year before this year. The halcyon days when we passed a "stimulus" bill that was going to help our economy boom by 2012. The optimistic times when we could totally afford a trillion-dollar government-run health care program and our debt was "only" $10-11 trillion (as opposed to $15 trillion and counting today). Some on the Senate Finance Committee apparently would like to relitigate tax policy from that wonderful era in American history and enact a retroactive tax hike.

Now, it should be noted that the two credits they're targeting (the alternative fuel mixture credit and the cellulosic biofuel producer credit) are not ideal tax policies by any stretch of the imagination. Particularly the alternative fuel credit, given that it's "refundable" and thus acts like government spending rather than simple tax reduction. A smart tax code wouldn't include either of these policies but would levy low, consistent taxes across the board for all types of fuels and producers. But enacting retroactive tax increases is a much more egregious violation of principles of sound tax policy than either of those dumb credits.

The second effort, a proposed amendment to the Chairman's mark from Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), would target the oil and gas industry for punitive tax treatment by eliminating provisions like the Section 199 manufacturer's deduction or the "dual capacity" credit for them alone. If we've written it once, we've written it a hundred times: singling out oil and gas companies for higher taxes is bad tax policy and it's bad energy policy. Thankfully, the Congress has thus far largely agreed with us as the dozens of attempts in recent years to impose Menendez-like tax increases have all failed at one point in the process or another.

The Senate Finance Committee will be taking up these issues this afternoon and we hope they focus their efforts on reducing wasteful spending and not on retroactive tax hikes or tired attempts to punish an unloved industry.

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FAA Conference Report: Positive Steps, Missed Opportunities
Posted By:  - 02/06/12

Later today the Senate will vote on the Conference Report on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act. Although the bill takes many positive steps forward, it ultimately missed several opportunities for savings and reforms that fiscal conservatives had sought.

Since 2007 the FAA has been lurching from short-term extension to short-term extension (23 in all), which has become a serious logistical impediment for the aviation sector’s attempt to modernize and grow. The Conference Report would reauthorize FAA operations and programs for four years, thus creating a more stable funding path for the agency and predictability for the aviation sector. Moreover, it does so without worsening the already onerous tax burden on air travel. Given that consumers can often face a higher effective tax rate on their airline tickets than they do on their 1040 tax returns, it’s too bad Congress couldn’t go one step further and actually provide relief from this heavy tax load.

The bill makes incremental (and in some cases solid) progress on a number of other issues. Although funding for the wasteful Essential Air Service has not been eliminated, the modest eligibility restrictions in the legislation could provide a starting point for deeper reforms. Language was also included to increase airports’ ability to hire private security screeners in place of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) workers. Furthermore, the package would make improvements to a National Mediation Board rule so as to better balance labor organizations’ attempts to unionize a workplace with the rights of workers to not participate in union activity.

Despite this progress, the Conference Report’s elevated authorization levels remain a major concern. NTU has previously expressed its support for the House-passed FAA Reauthorization Bill, which would have funded the FAA at 2008 levels. By contrast the Conference Report would extend FAA funding at inflated 2011 levels – a $3.8 billion increase. At a time when taxpayers are expecting government agencies to do more with less, the Conference Report could have been more aggressive at restraining expenditures and reinforcing a private sector-driven model that allows our aviation industry to more effectively innovate and evolve. Bottom line: even as lawmakers line up to vote for this compromise legislation, Congress could have done – and in the near future will need to do – more to ensure aviation policy is on a fiscally and economically desirable flight path.  

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California's Budget Mess and the Ballot Box
Posted By: Brent Mead - 02/02/12

In non-breaking news, California is going broke…again. State Controller John Chiang told legislators that without action, the state will be unable to make $730 million in payments on March 8. All told, the state must come up with about $3.3 billion by mid-April in order to cover a deficit of $5.2 billion.

The good news is that Controller Chiang is hopeful the state will not have to resort to IOU’s this time. The bad news is that by approaching private bond markets for a $1 billion or so bridge loan, taxpayers will be on the hook for interest payments associated with having an abysmally low bond rating.

In light of the new deficit, concerned taxpayers should note the massive boondoggle being placed on the June ballot. Proposition 29 would raise taxes by $850 million a year, by increasing the tax on cigarettes by a dollar per pack, to fund cancer research.

NTU echoes what the California Taxpayer Association had to say on the matter;

"There's no doubt that we all support cancer research. But like high-speed rail, stem-cell research and other ballot-box budget initiatives before it, Proposition 29's good intentions are overshadowed by the fact that California simply cannot afford another billion-dollar government boondoggle to create another wasteful spending program," California Taxpayers Association President Teresa Casazza said in a statement.

Prop 29 contains numerous flaws including evading the state’s constitutional requirement that 40 percent of new revenue go towards education. Additionally, the measure does not protect California taxpayers by ensuring the money will stay in state. Instead, an unelected board has the power to allocate around $575 million towards grantees, or purchasing real estate, without any requirement that such money go to California based groups. Finally, the measure recognizes that increasing taxes on cigarettes will have a negative impact on existing health programs tied to tobacco taxes and backfills $75 million of that revenue.

Of course, this is the underlying problem with the whole scheme. Tobacco tax hikes rarely produce the promised revenue. Not only will Prop 29 shortchange existing programs, but it will also add a new unpaid for spending program to the budget. California will then be left in the position of funding core areas such as K-12 education, road maintenance, etc. or funding expensive side projects such as this measure.

California’s multi-billion dollar deficits should be a wake-up call that the state cannot afford such spending programs. California is past due on getting back to the basic roles of government.

 

 

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CBO Report: Taxes Set to Soar to Historic Levels
Posted By:  - 01/31/12

The charged political atmosphere of the coming presidential elections is certain to generate a heated debate over whether or not to extend the Bush-era tax rates.  In its recently released Budget and Economic Outlook the nonpartisan CBO lays out a pretty cut and dried case why we should.

According to the CBO, allowing the rates to expire would cause federal revenues to shoot to historic levels:

“Under current law . . . revenues are projected to grow even faster between 2012 and 2014: by a total of 31 percent, far outstripping the 7 percent total growth in GDP projected for that two-year period. As a result, revenues as a share of GDP are projected to rise by 3.7 percentage points during that period, reaching 20.0 percent of GDP in 2014 – a level that has been exceeded only once since World War II.”

The tax increases wouldn’t end there. Due to bracket creep revenues would continue to edge upwards annually, reaching 21 percent of GDP in the next decade. And while the higher revenues would help to decrease the deficit, it would also create an enormous drag on our economy:

“The pace of the economic recovery has been slow since the recession ended in June 2009, and the CBO expects that, under current laws governing taxes and spending, the economic will continue to grow at a sluggish pace over the next two years. That pace of growth partly reflects the dampening effect on economic activity from the higher tax rates and curbs on spending scheduled to occur this year and next.

The “dampening effect” leads the CBO to predict that the jobless rate would rise to 8.9 percent by the end of 2012 and to 9.2 percent in 2013.

By contrast, if all the scheduled tax increases are avoided, revenues would still return to historical levels. Chart 1-7 shows that under the “alternative fiscal scenario,” in which the CBO makes certain policy assumptions, including the extension of the 2001 and 2003 tax rates, average revenues reach 18.3 percent by the end of the decade. That happens to be the rough equivalent of the average federal tax revenue since World War II.

Using that data it’s clear that spending and not taxes is what is historically out of whack. It’s also clear that if policymakers are to ever achieve fiscal sustainability while not wrecking the economy, they should extend the 2001 and 2003 rates while finding ways to spend less. May I suggest they start HERE.

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Obama's Attack of the Imaginary "Outsourcing Tax Break" Could Have Real Consequences
Posted By:  - 01/25/12

Like many I watched the State of the Union last night. I’ve also read it. And reread it. But for the life of me I still can’t figure out what President Obama was talking about when he said, “It is time to stop rewarding businesses that ship job oversees.”

I wasn’t the only one left confused.

“The truth is that not even Mitt Romney’s tax accountant could get him a tax write off for moving jobs to Bangalore. So what I the name of Warren Buffet’s secretary could Obama possibly mean,” wrote Shikha Dalmia of Reason.

And it’s not as if this was just a one-liner that some young speechwriter through in there just to play up the populist angle. Obama repeated it over, and over, and over.

“Right now, companies get tax breaks for moving jobs and profits overseas.”

“If you’re a business that wants to outsource jobs, you shouldn’t get a tax deduction for doing it.”

“No American company should be able to avoid paying its fair share of taxes by moving jobs and profits overseas.”

“It is time to stop rewarding businesses that ship jobs overseas.”

Unfortunately for Obama saying something a bunch of times doesn’t make it true. The fact is, no such tax break exists. Indeed, the only thing that I can think of that Obama may be referring to isn’t a tax break at all, it’s a clumsy attempt to prevent America’s corporate tax code from being worse than it already is (which is pretty bad).

Currently, the United States is one of the few remaining nations to use a “worldwide” system that taxes business income earned outside national borders. The U.S. also has the distinction of having the second highest (soon to be the highest) corporate tax rate among OECD nations, and ranks and embarrassing 124th out of 183 countries worldwide in total tax rate faced by a typical corporation.

Those two facts mean that a U.S. based company that earns income in say, France, would pay the French rate, then turn right around and pay the U.S. rate on top of it. Not exactly a formula for success. To try and alleviate the burden, Washington came up with an overly complicated system by which we maintain our “worldwide” scheme but allow companies to only pay the difference between the U.S. rate and the tax they’ve already paid as well as delay that tax payment until they bring the money back to the U.S. (repatriate it).

This creates the odd incentive for businesses to leave their cash overseas rather than bring it home to invest, hire, or heck, even hand out in dividends.

It’s a complicated, mish-mash of a system that is ill-suited for the global marketplace. President Obama is right to cheerlead for its reform. But reform shouldn’t mean making it even more complicated and even more uncompetitive.

Sadly, that’s exactly what Obama sounds like he wants to do. Rather than reform the system to lower the rate and eliminate loopholes, President Obama wants to create more loopholes for certain favored industries (“high-tech manufacturing”) while enacting a de facto tax hike on multinational firms. This is no way to encourage firms to bring their profits back to our shores, it’s a strategy that incentivizes companies to move off our shores altogether!

Hopefully, Obama will read, and reread, this post until he figures that out.

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Obama's Disastrous Idea to Create a Corporate AMT
Posted By:  - 01/24/12

“From now on, every multinational company should have to pay a basic minimum tax. And every penny should go towards lowering taxes for companies that choose to stay here and hire here.” – President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union

 

Sound familiar? That’s because individuals already have a similar sounding plan in the Alternative Minimum Tax or AMT. The AMT was put in place to ensure that the taxes of the highest-income taxpayers never fell below a threshold level. Obama would use the term “fair.” At the time of its passage in 1969 it was aimed at 21 of the nation’s wealthiest individuals. Now it hits more than 4 million taxpayers each year.

 

The problem is that Congress failed to tie the AMT to inflation, meaning that every year Congress must enact a “patch” lest many middle-income families be faced with higher taxes. If that sounds like a debacle that’s because it is. Which makes President Obama’s call for a similar scheme on the corporate side of the code seem all the more ludicrous. We need to be simplifying not complicating. Apparently President Obama has never taken a look at our annual tax complexity study, which can be found HERE.  

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Obama's Plans Would Hinder, Not Help, American Manufacturing
Posted By:  - 01/24/12

“So we have a huge opportunity, at this moment, to bring manufacturing back. But we have to seize it. Tonight, my message to business leaders is simple: Ask yourselves what you can do to bring jobs back to your country, and your country will do everything we can to help you succeed.” – Obama’s 2012 State of the Union

President Obama is not wrong that America has an opportunity to grow its manufacturing base, but if we follow his prescription of higher taxes (especially on investment), empowering unions, and more regulation than it will be a lost opportunity.

But don’t take our word for it. Here’s the National Association of Manufacturer’s recent letter to President Obama following the announcement of the so-called American Jobs Act – a plan eerily similar to the vague outline laid out in his State of the Union:

“President Obama’s call for tax increases on small businesses, individuals and investors is a poison pill for our economy. The bottom line is that manufacturers need policies that enable them to hire more workers, make capital investments and expand their businesses. More than 70 percent of manufacturers operate as S-corporations and pay income tax at the individual rate, so higher taxes on these job creators would be a devastating blow. The President’s proposal is short-sighted; we should not attempt to solve our nation’s fiscal ills on the backs of businesses striving to expand and add jobs.”

 

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