Tax reform bills have been approved by both the Republican-controlled House and Senate. Most observers believe the different versions will be reconciled into legislation representing the most thoroughgoing and consequential changes to the U.S. tax code since the late 1980s.
To get a sense of the good, the bad, and the ugly of tax reform (there's plenty of each) Reason's Nick Gillespie sat down with Grover Norquist, the longtime head of Americans for Tax Reform and arguably the most influential activist over the past 30 years when it comes arguing for lower taxes.
Edited by Mark McDaniel. Introduction and graphics by Meredith Bragg. Cameras by McDaniel and Bragg. Music by Krakatoa, licensed under Creative Commons, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US.
This is a rush transcript. Check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.
Nick Gillespie: When the Senate passed its version of tax reform you wrote, "This is big, a bigger deal than Obamacare. Big job creation, big middle class tax cuts, big changes in an outdated tax code." What do you like about tax reform as it's shaping up generally? What are the large contours?
Grover Norquist: There are things that happen immediately and then there's secondary effects. We eliminate the tax deductibility of state and local taxes. It's a pay for. Rates go down, broaden the base.
Gillespie: That's in both the House and the Senate.
Norquist: It's in the House and the Senate, they're the same. $10,000, you can deduct up to $10,000 of property tax at that state and local level but not income taxes. You go, okay, that's lower rates, broaden the base, who cares? What you just did was dramatically remove an incentive for higher taxes at state and local level. This reform packages is going to result in 1,000 tax increases that didn't happen at the state and local level and a 1,000 tax cuts that do. As California with a 13.3% top income tax rate, it's going to have to take that down.
Gillespie: California's also a net donor to the federal government so is this going to kill the golden goose if California's a high tax state when people are wealthy there? They kick a lot of money into the federal government, shouldn't they be getting tax relief from the federal government?
Norquist: Because it is California senators and congressmen and New York senators and congressmen, New Jersey senators and congressmen and Connecticut senators and congressmen who vote for the very high tax rates at the federal level which is why those states are donor states. They also have politicians at the state and local level who have high taxes as well. They damage the country when they raise our personal income taxes for everyone in the country. But they also damage the whole country when their state politicians have high state taxes that are subsidized by being tax deductible at the federal level.
Gillespie: What are the other tax expenditures or tax breaks that get lost here? That you're good about? The Senate version doesn't do anything with the mortgage interest deduction so it allows homeowners and the people who take the mortgage interest deduction overwhelmingly wealthy, they can deduct up to a million dollars or interest on loans up to a million dollars for two houses. The House version caps that at 500,000 for one. Which is better? And why shouldn't it be zero for this?
Norquist: We should take it to zero. Some of these things are how far can you get. Any three senators could kill the whole project. There are limits to how far you can go. Any 25 congressmen can kill the whole project. When you begin to push around the edges and we called it pretty close in both cases. We had two votes to spare in the Senate and maybe 10, 15 votes to spare in the House and now we're going to do this again. Given the rules we were living under, the Senate rule, the Bird Law, and the fact that we had narrow majorities. This is a very good piece of legislation but there's a caveat. It's not what you and I would write if we'd written it down. It's not what I'd like to see in 20 years or 10 years.