Listen Closely When Romney Talks About Taxes

When Mitt Romney talks about his plan for tax reform, he is very careful to say two things: He wants to cut tax rates, and he wants high-income households to pay the same share of taxes they do today. He said it again on Face the Nation last Sunday—a rare in-depth broadcast interview on a network not named Fox.

The first promise is easy to understand. But the second is more subtle. Romney is saying the rich should pay the same share of total tax revenue as they do now.  But he is not saying they should pay the same effective tax rate they pay today or that he’d exempt them from his rate cuts. Quite the opposite: His tax plan would make the 2001/2003 tax cuts permanent and further reduce rates, including for those at the top, by an additional 20 percent (bringing the top rate down to 28 percent).  

While Romney says he’d offset those additional rate cuts by scaling back deductions and other preferences for high-income households, he has not said how. Thus, based on what we know, his tax proposal implies that high-income households would pay much less tax than today.

This is what he said on Face the Nation: “One– one of the absolute requirements of any tax reform that I have in mind is that people who are at the high end, whether you call them the one percent or two percent or half a percent, that people at the high end will still pay the same share of the tax burden they’re paying now.”

In other words, if you put both pieces of Romney’s tax platform together, he could cut taxes across-the-board, including for the rich, while not reducing the current tax share paid by those at the very top of the economic food chain.  

To make this more understandable, let’s look at a few numbers produced by my colleagues at the Tax Policy Center:

Last year, the top 1 percent (those making an average of about $1.5 million) paid one-quarter of all federal taxes. The top 0.1 percent, who made an average of nearly $7 million, paid about 13 percent of all federal taxes. It is that share of federal tax payments that Romney would freeze.

That’s very different from freezing their average tax rates. For instance, last year the top 1 percent paid an average rate of 29.7 percent while the top 0.1 percent paid an average rate of 31.6 percent. Romney is not at all opposed to lowering those effective rates.

Indeed, if Romney does cut statutory rates across-the-board, the richest households would get the biggest tax reductions, in both dollars and as a share of their income. For instance, TPC estimates that without any offsetting reductions in tax preferences, Romney would cut taxes for those in the top 0.1 percent by more than $1 million, while he’d cut them for middle-income households by about $2,000.           

The GOP’s likely standard-bearer was fuzzy in his Face the Nation interview about who would be subject to the Romney Rule on tax shares. That could matter quite a lot when he decides how to reduce those tax preferences for high-income households.  

The world of the top 0.1 percent is vastly different from those in the top 5 percent, where households make $210,000 and up. Romney could, for example, freeze the tax share of the 120,000 households in the top 0.1 percent while reducing it for the nearly 6 million in the top 5 percent. And that implies that he’d raise the tax shares paid by lower income families.  

Many politicians are sloppy when they talk about taxes. But when he wants to be, Romney is quite precise. As a result, his promises often hinge on technical but very important distinctions. That’s why when Romney speaks, you should listen very carefully.