Congress’ Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (the so-called “super committee”) failed to reach an agreement by its November 23 deadline after weeks of sparring over the Bush-era tax cuts. The Budget Control Act of 2011 created the bipartisan super committee in August and instructed it to develop proposals to reduce the federal budget deficit by November 23. The super committee held many meetings and reportedly debated several proposals, all behind closed doors, to reform the Tax Code and entitlement programs. In the end, however, Democrats and the GOP remained far apart on taxes and entitlement programs and announced they could not agree on a final proposal.

Bush-era tax cuts
One tax item in particular appeared to frustrate the progress of the super committee: the fate of the Bush-era tax cuts. Last year, the White House and Congress agreed to extend the Bush-era tax cuts through 2012. Under current law, the following Bush-era tax cuts (not an exhaustive list) will expire after 2012 unless extended:

  • Reduced individual income tax rates (10, 15, 28, 33, and 35 percent)
  • Reduced capital gains and dividends tax rates
  • Marriage penalty relief (expanded 15 percent tax bracket for joint filers and standard deduction for married couples twice that of single individuals)
  • Repeal of the limitation on itemized deductions for higher income taxpayers
  • Repeal of the phase out of personal exemptions for higher income taxpayers

In September, President Obama sent the super committee a plan that would have extended the Bush-era tax cuts for lower and moderate income individuals but not for higher income taxpayers (which the White House defines as single individuals with incomes over $200,000 and married couples with incomes over $250,000). The House GOP presented a plan that would have lowered the maximum individual and corporate tax rates to 25 percent. Several committees and individual lawmakers also sent deficit reduction plans to the super committee.

In the days leading up to the November deadline, Democratic and Republican members of the super committee acknowledged that they had reached little common ground over the fate of the Bush-era tax cuts. On November 21, the co-chairs of the super committee announced that that they “[had] come to the conclusion that it will not be possible to make any bipartisan agreement available to the public before the committee’s deadline.”

With the super committee sidelined, the fate of the Bush-era tax cuts moves to Congress and the White House. The GOP-controlled House could try to extend the Bush-era tax cuts in stand-alone legislation but any bill would likely fail to pass the Senate. Additionally, President Obama has repeatedly said he will veto legislation that extends the Bush-era tax cuts for higher income taxpayers.

Payroll tax cut
More immediately, the ?White House and Congress are currently debating the fate of extending for another year the 2011 payroll tax cut. Wage earners and self-employed individuals took home more pay in 2011 because of a temporary reduction in the employee-share of old age, survivors and disability (OASDI) taxes. The employee-share of OASDI taxes was reduced from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent for calendar year 2011 (with similar relief provided to self-employed individuals). ). Although both sides of the aisle in Congress agree that an extension through 2012 is desirable, consensus must be achieved in agreeing to ways to pay for its $263 billion price tag. An agreement is expected sometime in December, although prospects are not entirely certain.?

Budget cuts
The super committee’s failure to deliver a deficit reduction plan automatically triggers spending cuts after 2012. Under the Budget Control Act, the spending reductions will be achieved through a combination of sequestration (for FY 2013) and the downward adjustment of discretionary spending limits for FY 2014-FY 2021. This means that Congress must determine the manner in which reductions are made to the federal government’s budget, including the IRS, through the annual appropriations process each year. However, some programs, such as Social Security and Medicaid, are exempt from the budget cuts.

President Obama and Congress could agree to modify the spending reductions under the Budget Control Act. On November 21, President Obama said he will veto any bills that remove the automatic triggers in the Budget Control Act. President Obama is reportedly using the veto threat to keep pressure on Congress to reach an agreement over the fate of the Bush-era tax cuts and entitlement spending.

If you have any questions about the super committee, the Bush-era tax cuts or the prospects for tax reform, please contact our office.