Trump pledges big tax cuts that may do nothing for the economy

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President Donald Trump is tapping his presidential authority to make tax changes that Congress is refusing to do, but his limited power means he could end up over-promising and under-delivering on his pledge to slash IRS bills.

Trump has deferred hundreds of billions of dollars worth of payroll tax levies and is contemplating another executive action that would amount to a roughly $100 billion capital gains tax cut for investors by changing Treasury Department guidelines.

The president is running for re-election in November trailing Democrat Joe Biden in every recent poll. Meanwhile, Congress is deadlocked on another broad stimulus as the country continues to struggle under a still-raging coronavirus pandemic. There are no immediate prospects for more negotiations and the stalemate could drag into September, leaving the economy limping as voters are getting ready to make their choices.

With a recovery key to Trump winning a second term, the actions are aimed at giving a lift to both his working-class base and financial markets. But the tactic comes with a significant amount of political risk.

Those payroll tax payments will still come due unless Congress decides to forgive the amounts, which is no sure bet. Both Republican and Democratic leaders aren’t enthusiastic about slashing the levies that finance Social Security and Medicare.

The president’s plan to cut capital gains taxes would involve executive action that some conservatives think may overstep his authority and end up in court. And the benefits, if they were to be realized, would be heavily tilted to the wealthy, giving Democrats another opportunity to attack Trump as favoring the rich at the expense of the middle class.

“With payroll taxes, administratively there is no way to make it work perfectly without Congress,” Kyle Pomerleau, a resident fellow at conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute, said. “With capital gains, it could get tied up in the courts and it just never happens.”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Wednesday indicated at least some in the administration are aware of the pitfalls.

“The president would like to do capital gains tax cuts, and we do need legislation to do what we want on that front,” he said on Fox Business.

With congressional talks at an impasse on another round of stimulus that economists, Federal Reserve officials and market participants all see as essential, Trump unilaterally extended extra unemployment aid and deferred payroll tax payments. When that failed to prod a resumption of talks, and analysts assessed its impact as limited, the S&P 500 turned sharply lower in the final hour of trading on Tuesday.

Some companies are waiting for guidance before deciding whether to take the risk of getting saddled with bills at the end of the year.

Matter of trust

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told reporters Tuesday that companies and employees “trust the president” that the tax bills would be forgiven.

Mnuchin, though, indicated some companies may opt not to take the deferral.

“We’re going to create a level of certainty for small businesses who want to do this,” he said.

Trump is reliant on Congress to forgive the deferred tax payments, but that could be a tough sell for lawmakers who have repeatedly dismissed his requests for a payroll tax cut, said Joe Bishop-Henchman, the vice president of policy and litigation at the National Taxpayers Union Foundation.

“He’s been pretty insistent on that for some time now, and Congress hasn’t addressed it,” he said.

Tax changes

Trump on Monday also said he’d soon release a middle-income tax cut proposal. But that would need Congress to act, so any plan would be more a campaign pledge than something that could take effect in the coming months.

Polls have indicated that voters aren’t inclined to trust the president. A Quinnipiac University poll released last month found that 31 percent of registered voters said he was honest, with more than double that — 66 percent — saying he wasn’t.

His penchant for big ideas that never quite come to pass could hurt him as voters find that promised benefits don’t materialize in their bank accounts. Businesses are already worried that Trump’s payroll order could create a series of administrative problems, but not actually deliver any economic boost.

“If employees are burdened with deferred payroll taxes later, then we haven’t provided relief, we have postponed the tax payment at best, all at a significant expense to employers,” Alice Jacobsohn, the director of government relations for the American Payroll Association, said in a statement.

‘Much ado’

Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics, estimates that the executive orders would have “at best” marginal economic benefits, falling short of pledges to provide relief to jobless workers and create jobs through tax cuts.

“The EOs are much ado about nothing,” Zandi said in an email. “Aside from the waiving of interest payments on student loans through the end of the year, which is important for student loan borrowers but has little macroeconomic benefit, the EOs will not be implemented, at least not in the foreseeable future.”

— With assistance from Jordan Fabian, Mike Dorning, Michael Bologna and Saleha Mohsin

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