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Divided Political Parties Not So Far Apart on Some Tax Issues



As the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates grapple hammer and tong through the 101 remaining days until the November 8 election, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump might be surprised how much the people who nominated them agree philosophically on some important tax policy issues.

Tax fairness, including making all taxpayers pay their "fair share," punishing corporations that move overseas, and encouraging entrepreneurship through tax credits were among the areas of agreement Tax Analysts found in interviews with more than a dozen delegates and alternates attending the two nominating conventions.

The two major parties' platform documents reflect sharp divisions about how to improve the nation's tax system, with Republicans blasting the IRS and calling for corporate tax cuts and Democrats emphasizing tax progressivity that some critics charge would lead to tax increases.

To be sure, delegates from both parties aligned more or less with their own parties' platforms, but many wanted to go further than their parties' leadership in some areas of tax policy and administration.

Different Routes, Same Destination?

In separate interviews at the two conventions, delegates shared similar concerns about several tax issues, though they often took different routes to reach seemingly the same conclusions.

Jim Ignatowski, a Trump alternate delegate from Chicago, said, "It's the corporate tax breaks that have been hitting the little guy. Every big corporation has gotten tax breaks. Let's start charging them their fair due."

Clinton delegate Jan Kallish, also from Chicago, agreed, citing the so-called Buffett rule that no secretary should pay a higher tax rate than her CEO. "I believe in paying taxes," she said. "I just believe everyone should pay their fair share."

Ignatowski added, "If we tax at the appropriate level, everybody has to play the same game. There's no special things. We're going to get the jobs coming back."

Corporate inversions, when U.S. businesses reincorporate overseas to pay lower tax rates, were unpopular with delegates.

"We helped these companies grow to what they are," said Matt Killen, who came to the Democratic convention from Florida as a delegate for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

"Without the government, without the U.S. population contributing to all this, there is no way they would achieve to the level that they have," Killen said. "Yeah, if you move out after you've gotten all the benefits, I call that ripping people off."

Mike Andrews, a Trump delegate from Wyoming, said he wanted a surtax imposed on companies that move out of the country to "give some parity" in exchange for U.S. jobs lost.

Yul Owens Jr., an American Federation of Government Employees union representative in Philadelphia and a Clinton delegate, proposed a nontax solution to the problem of corporate inversions and the tax losses they inflict through lost jobs and forgone income: Boycott the inverters.

"Plain and simple," Owens said. "That goes for Nike, Coca-Cola, all the big ones."

'Tax Fairness' for Whom?

Katie Frost, a Georgia delegate for Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said the tax code needs to encourage business formation.

"We need to be encouraging businesses to start up, not just crushing them with the tax code," Frost said. "We need to have an environment that inspires entrepreneurship, and I don't think we have that right now."

Clinton delegate Vaitinasa Salu Hunkin-Finau, from American Samoa, agreed, noting that her unincorporated U.S. territory wants the Democratic nominee to push for renewal of an economic development tax credit that expires at the end of 2016.

"The economy hasn't developed to the point where we would like it to," Hunkin-Finau said. "So every tax credit that we can get for development and minimum wages that is affordable to the business in Samoa is what we're looking for."

Delegates also found common ground on the subject of "tax fairness," though they may have different definitions of the term.

Sanders delegate Tom Duane, a former New York state senator, said, "There are too many people who have too much money who really don't give back by paying their fair share into government services. Many of them think that they are doing a better job giving it away themselves through philanthropy, but that's not necessarily so."

Dan Happel, a Trump delegate from Pony, Montana, said the unfair tax system has been driving business out of the country.

"We've been getting rid of our industry through unfair taxes -- the highest tax rate in the corporate world," Happel said. Part of his solution: Reduce the capital gains tax. "We need to get back to reasonable tax rates that draw business and industry back to the United States."

Head Tax, Estate Tax

Of course, being Democrats and Republicans, the delegates saw plenty of tax issues in harshly different lights.

Paul Landsgaard, a Trump delegate from Bozeman, Montana, expressed opposition to the federal income tax, saying he would like to see it replaced with a flat tax, or even a head tax, which would tax each individual at the same dollar amount, regardless of income or wealth.

"Our deficit is ridiculous, but we wouldn't have a deficit if we'd stop unconstitutional spending," Landsgaard said. "If it's not authorized in article 1, section 8 [of the U.S. Constitution], the government has no business spending money on it."

Frost suggested that "we need to shut down the IRS," adding that the FairTax -- basically a national consumption tax to replace federal income, corporate, estate, capital gains, and gift taxes -- would eliminate the need for Washington and IRS bureaucracies by collecting taxes at the point of sale.

Andrews agreed on the need for a consumption tax. "I think [Trump is] warming up to a more Ted Cruz-style tax . . . where it's really more simple for the average person to fill out and pay their fair tax," he said. "Anything is better than our current system."

On the other side, Ashley Stewart, a Clinton delegate from Ames, Iowa, called for a progressive corporate income tax that would levy proportionately more on Fortune 500 companies than on mom-and-pop businesses.

Duane said he supported Clinton's proposal to restore what the Democratic platform called "fair taxation on multimillion-dollar estates," after the Bush administration's 2001 attempt to phase out the estate tax in 2010.

"We have to improve the lives of people who by accident of their birth were born poor," Duane said.

Give and Take

But Duane wasn't enamored of Clinton's proposal to change the tax preference for carried interest, even after he switched his allegiance from Sanders to Clinton.

"It's a little more complicated," Duane said, claiming that while the Democrats' carried interest reform would affect large hedge fund managers, it would not be fair to smaller investment firms. "The people who would be most affected by that are your rank-and-file brokers and traders," he said.

John Burnett, a Trump delegate from New York, said that while Trump may bargain away his proposed 15 percent corporate income tax for a deal with Congress resulting in a 20 percent or 25 percent corporate tax, that would still cut corporate tax rates by almost half. That in turn could bring back what he said was an estimated $3 trillion in earnings hiding overseas from U.S. taxation.

"If we can get half of that to come back onshore, we can energize America, in terms of jobs, in terms of rebuilding our infrastructure, which means more blue- and white-collar jobs . . . in metropolitan areas as well as rural areas," Burnett said.

Bruce Ford, a Clinton delegate from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, favors the Democratic platform's call for incentives for businesses that share profits with their workers.

"I believe in any plan that's going to bring people together," Ford said, "especially in the time we find ourselves in."

Whither Tax Reform?

So now that the platforms are published, the conventions are over, and the delegates have gone home, does anyone in Washington (or who might be there in January 2017) care what they think?

House Ways and Means Committee member Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., said House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., is unlikely to be swayed by Democratic delegates' -- or their platform's -- arguments.

"The idea that Paul Ryan is going to accept a tax increase is pretty hard for me to imagine," said Neal, noting that Clinton will not be able to use administrative rulemaking to raise taxes and House Republicans will not approve of the legislation.

"Ryan is intransigent on the issue," said Neal, adding, "I don't know how you can complain about slow economic growth and not place some of the blame on the tax system."

Speaking at an event in Cleveland during the GOP convention, Ryan said Republican priorities include simplifying the tax code so that tax returns can be filled out on a postcard, preserving the charitable and mortgage interest deductions, overhauling the IRS "so it really is a service agency and not a policing agency," and giving all businesses incentives to grow and hire.

"Operate on the premise that it's your money," Ryan said. "You pay the lowest tax rate you possibly can pay and you decide what you want to do with it, instead of the current system where . . . you send your money to Washington, and then if you engage in behavior that Washington thinks you should engage in, then they'll let you keep some of your money."

Ways and Means Committee member Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., said he thought that tax reform will have a better chance of passing Congress with Clinton in the White House. "There's no question about it," Rangel said, adding that success depends on whether Democrats control both the Senate and House after the November elections.