Congressional committees this week begin drafting tax increases on the wealthy and corporations to pay for a $3.5 trillion social policy bill, but the targets are putting up a fight.
WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats always knew their battle plan for raising taxes on corporations, large inheritances and the superwealthy would not survive initial contact with the enemy.
They just didn’t realize that enemy would be North Dakota-nice Heidi Heitkamp.
The Democratic former senator has emerged as the smiling face of a well-financed effort to defeat a proposed tax increase that is crucial to funding the $3.5 trillion social spending bill at the heart of President Biden’s agenda. Her effort is indicative of the difficult slog ahead as the business lobby mobilizes to chip away at Democrats’ tax-raising ambitions, which some lawmakers say will have to be scaled back to maintain party unity, an assessment the White House has disputed.
On Thursday, the House Ways and Means Committee is set to begin formally drafting its voluminous piece of the 10-year measure to combat climate change and reweave the nation’s social safety net, with paid family and medical leave, expanded public education, new Medicare benefits and more. The committee’s purview includes much of that social policy, but also the tax increases needed to pay for it.
Democrats had hoped that the tax side would be more than notations on an accounting ledger. They regard it as an opportunity to fundamentally change policies to address growing income inequality, reduce incentives for corporations to move jobs and profits overseas, and slow the amassing of huge fortunes that pass through generations untaxed.
But corporate interests, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and Americans for Tax Reform, have mobilized a multifaceted lobbying and advertising blitz to stop the tax increases — or at least mitigate them.
“They’re lobbying to try to escape their obligation to pay the taxes they owe, leaving working families to pay a larger share of the burden,” Mr. Biden said at the White House on Friday. “Somebody has got to pay.”
Members of the Senate Finance Committee will meet this week to go over more than two dozen tax proposals. Some of them are well on their way toward inclusion in the measure, which under a complex budget process known as reconciliation would be able to pass Congress without a single Republican vote.
Lobbyists expect the top individual income tax rate to return to 39.6 percent from the 37 percent rate that President Donald J. Trump’s tax cuts created in 2017. The corporate income tax rate will also rise from the 21 percent in the Trump tax cuts, though not to the 35 percent rate of the Obama years. Lawmakers say a 25 percent rate is more likely.
Many Democrats are determined to tax the wealth of America’s fabulously rich, much of which goes untaxed for decades before being passed along to heirs. Currently, for instance, when large estates are passed on at death, heirs are allowed to value the stocks, real estate and other assets at the price they would fetch at the time of the original owner’s death. They pay taxes only on the gain in value from that point once the assets are sold. If the assets are not sold, they are not taxed at all.
Mr. Biden wants to have heirs to large fortunes pay taxes when the original owner dies. Those taxes would be levied on inherited assets based on the gain in value from when those assets were initially purchased.
Ms. Heitkamp, who said she was recruited to the opposition campaign by the Democratic former senator-turned-superlobbyist John Breaux, is adamant that taxation upon death, regardless of wealth, is deadly politics. Ms. Heitkamp said she was finding a receptive audience among potential swing voters in rural areas, especially owners of family farms, even though Democrats say such voters would never be affected by the changes under consideration. Lobbyists already expect this piece of the estate tax changes to wash out in the lobbying deluge.
“This is very consistent with my concern about revitalizing the Democratic Party in rural America,” Ms. Heitkamp said. “You may want to do this,” she said she had counseled her former colleagues, “but understand there will be risk, and risk is the entire agenda.”
Even more significantly, the Finance Committee is looking at taxing the accumulated wealth of billionaires, regardless of whether it is sold. Extremely wealthy Americans like the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos would have a decade to pay a one-time tax on the value of assets like stocks that have been accruing value for years. They would then pay taxes each year on the annual gain in value of their stocks, bonds and other assets, much like many Americans pay property taxes on the annually assessed value of their homes.
Another key component is the international tax code. The Biden administration has called for doubling the tax that companies pay on foreign earnings to 21 percent, so the United States complies with an international tax deal that the administration is brokering, which would usher in a global corporate minimum tax of at least 15 percent.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development announced in July that more than 130 countries had agreed to the new framework, which aims to eliminate tax havens and end a race to the bottom on corporate tax rates. Officials have been rushing to confirm the details before the Group of 20 leaders meet in Rome in October.
But countries such as France are concerned that the United States will not be able to live up to its end of the bargain if Congress cannot raise the minimum tax.
The moment of truth is approaching. Representative Lloyd Doggett of Texas, a senior Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, and 40 other members of his party on Tuesday backed the White House. Yet some Democratic lawmakers have expressed concern that U.S. companies would still be at a competitive disadvantage if other countries enacted minimum tax rates as low as 15 percent and the United States had a higher rate.
Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen addressed those concerns in a Twitter post on Friday.
“As Congress begins to finalize their legislation, I urge them to remember the historic opportunity that we have to end the race to the bottom and finally have a foreign policy and a tax code that works for the middle class,” she wrote.
Republicans are already on the attack. After the disappointing monthly jobs report on Friday, Representative Kevin Brady of Texas, the ranking Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, said the slowing economy would “only get worse if the Democrats’ trillions in tax hikes and welfare spending is rammed through Congress in September.”
Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, the chairman of the Finance Committee, said he understood that business groups and Republicans would howl that the tax increases would kill jobs, stifle the economy and hurt ordinary, struggling Americans.
“The big lobbies are going to attack you under any circumstance,” he said, “and half the time they’re just making it up.”
But he insisted that the politics had changed. Americans who struggled during the coronavirus pandemic can see how rich others have become. New revelations from a trove of tax records leaked to ProPublica showed that household names like Mr. Bezos and Elon Musk paid virtually no federal taxes.
Other lawmakers are not so sure, especially in the House, where midterm campaigns loom and a razor-thin Democratic majority is clearly at risk. Among the most vulnerable members are those from conservative-leaning districts where tax increases are particularly unpopular.
“No one wants to throw the House away,” said Representative Donald S. Beyer Jr., Democrat of Virginia, a member of the Ways and Means Committee. “We’re all mindful of our frontline candidates.”
Estate and capital gains tax changes proposed by the president and embraced by Mr. Wyden are aimed at the superrich, but the campaign against them frames the issue around family farms and small businesses. Ms. Heitkamp rebuffed Mr. Wyden’s assurance that he could structure the changes to affect only the very wealthy and the gain in value of their assets without taxation.
“People don’t believe that, because they believe that rich people always have the lane to get into Congress,” she said. “I get that you’re trying to deal with a huge disparity in wealth in this country, and I get that you are concerned about that for the future of America. I share the concern. Taxing unrealized capital gains is not the path forward.”
Some lawmakers and tax lobbyists are already circulating a document handicapping which measures are likely to survive — and which are not. A corporate tax rate increase at home and abroad is likely to pass, though it may not be as high as some Democrats would like. So is a higher top income tax rate on individuals. Capital gains tax rates are expected to rise somewhat, though not to the ordinary income tax rate of 39.6 percent for the very rich, as Mr. Biden has proposed.
A measure to increase tax law enforcement, which fell out of a separate bipartisan infrastructure bill, is likely to reappear in the reconciliation bill.
But lobbyists expect the proposal to make heirs pay immediate taxes on inheritances based on asset purchase prices to fall out of the plan.
They also see a straight, 15 percent minimum tax on overseas income as imperiled. Even some measures that looked like slam dunks may still be rejected because of the back-room lobbying campaign that has just begun.
That includes closing the so-called carried interest loophole, which allows richly compensated private equity and hedge fund managers to claim the fees they charge clients as investment income, subject to low capital gains tax rates, not income tax rates. Every president since Barack Obama has denounced the provision and demanded its closure, only to lose to influential lobbyists.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday started a campaign to stop the loophole from being closed, saying doing so “would reduce investment, lead to widespread job losses and decrease tax revenues.” Mr. Wyden called the assertions “insulting to the intelligence of every American.”
Administration officials insisted that taxing the rich and corporations would help sell the bill.
“Should we let millions of children grow up in poverty in order to protect offshore tax loopholes?” Kate Bedingfield, the White House communications director, wrote to House Democrats in a memo on Tuesday. “Should we let middle-class families bear crushing costs for child care and elder care rather than asking the very richest among us to pay their fair share? Those are the questions before us.”