What Voters Want from Tax Reform: Higher Rates for Wealthy Americans

President Barack Obama used his annual State of the Union address to explain the economic philosophy behind several tax proposals put forth by his administration this past week. One component of his overall plan would pay for middle-class tax cuts by raising rates that affect some of the wealthiest Americans, an idea many voters can get behind, new polling figures suggest.

Forty-eight percent of registered voters – a plurality – said raising taxes on individuals earning more than $1 million should be a top priority in any tax-code overhaul, according to a Morning Consult poll. The second-most popular choice was a combination of lowering individual rates and eliminating deductions. Lowering the corporate taxes came in third. However, raising tax rates on capital gains, a major component of Obama’s proposal, garnered the least amount of support among respondents.

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In his speech last night, Obama called for a return to “middle-class economics,” which he characterized as “helping folks afford childcare, college, health care, a home, retirement – and my budget will address each of these issues, lowering the taxes of working families and putting thousands of dollars back into their pockets each year.”

The White House plan, however, faces stiff opposition from congressional Republicans, who hold a majority in both the House and Senate. The partisan nature of the debate is seen among voters, too.

For 59 percent of Democratic voters polled, raising taxes for those making more than $1 million a year is a top priority, whereas 36 percent of Republican voters – a plurality – prioritize a tax hike on the top income brackets.

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Republicans responded negatively to the tax proposal. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) told an audience at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce yesterday that the White House plan “appears to be more about redistribution, with added complexity, and class warfare, directed at job-creating small businesses, than about tax reform.”

The reception wasn’t any warmer over in the House.

“Raising taxes just gives Washington bureaucrats more control to inefficiently spend money without accountability,” House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) said in a Jan. 20 statement. “Unfortunately, if President Obama has his way, hundreds of billions of dollars in new taxes will undeniably trickle down on to consumers. They’ll face fewer choices, higher costs and less economic freedom.”

Differences in annual income had little affect on the popularity of tax-reform preferences, according to the poll results. Forty-six percent of voters making less than $50,000 a year said raising the individual tax rate on high-income earners is the most popular option, while half of those making more than $100,000 said the same thing.

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Aspirations to overhaul the U.S. tax system are hardly new, and a number of proposals have been put forward in recent years. Obama’s latest plan comes a year after Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), then chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, proposed a comprehensive tax rewrite measure that drew sharp criticism from both parties as well as the business sector. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) never brought the bill to the floor for a vote.

Camp’s successor, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), has indicated tax reform should be a priority for the Ways and Means Committee, and he appears open to a partial overhaul of the corporate tax code while leaving the individual side of the equation for another day. Ryan has yet to offer a specific proposal in legislative form.

Tackling the first major overhaul of the tax code since 1986 is not just a priority for lawmakers and special interest groups. Voters are overwhelmingly in favor of a tax rewrite, according to Morning Consult polling data.

When asked if Congress should make overhauling the tax code a priority this year, 72 percent of registered voters said yes. That consensus holds true across the political spectrum, with 75 percent of Republicans, as well as 70 percent of Democrats and independents, saying taxes are one of this year’s most pressing issues.

But the prospects for comprehensive legislation finding its way into law are slim, at least in the eyes of the electorate. Fifty-nine percent of voters say they don’t think President Obama and congressional Republicans will reach a deal in 2015, while 27 percent of respondents said they would. Democrats were a bit more optimistic than Republicans or independents.

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The Morning Consult poll was conducted from Jan. 16 through Jan. 19 among a national sample of 1,540 registered voters. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.

Morning Consult