Five Easy Pieces and Two Trillion Dollars

The Bush-McCain-Norquist Tax Agenda

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    [John McCain] campaigned on being very good on taxes in this election cycle… that he will continue to make [the Bush tax cuts] permanent, that he will veto any tax increase, period, that he wants to cut the corporate rate from 35 percent to 25 percent, that he wants to have full expensing, that he wants to abolish the AMT …. In addition to being the Americans for Tax Reform’s entire agenda, that is a very pro-growth set of policies he has put forward, and he articulates why they are important.”
        —Grover Norquist, President, Americans for Tax Reform, February 27, 2008

    In 2001 and 2003, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) opposed the Bush tax cuts, arguing that they came “at the expense of lower- and middle-income Americans” and were too costly in a time of war.2 As a presidential candidate, however, McCain not only embraces the Bush tax cuts but also proposes massive additional tax cuts that are even more tilted against the middle class.

    To assess the McCain tax proposals, we begin by defining five key characteristics of the Bush tax cuts: they cost an enormous sum, skew benefits to the wealthy, favor capital over work, protect tax shelters, and increase federal budget deficits. We then assess the McCain proposals against these five benchmarks. Finally, we compare both the Bush and McCain plans with the conservative tax agenda known as “Five Easy Pieces” advanced by Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform and other conservative tax groups.

    Our analysis suggests that the McCain plan shares five key characteristics of Bush policies. First, it is enormously expensive, costing more than $2 trillion over the next decade and essentially doubling the Bush tax cuts. Second, the McCain plan would predominantly benefit the most fortunate taxpayers, offering two new massive tax cuts for corporations and delivering 58 percent of its benefits to the top 1 percent of taxpayers. The Bush tax cuts provide 31 percent of their benefits to the top 1 percent of taxpayers.

    Third, the McCain tax plan continues the shift of the tax burden from investment income onto earned income. Fourth, the plan not only fails to address current tax shelter problems in the tax code but in fact will lead to increased sheltering. Fifth, McCain cannot pay for his tax cuts without massive reductions in Social Security, Medicare, or other key programs that benefit the vast majority of Americans.

    In the final analysis, we conclude that the McCain tax plan is essentially a continuation of the agenda articulated by Norquist and others to achieve piecemeal but radical changes to the U.S. tax code under the heading of “Five Easy Pieces.” These changes require huge spending cuts, shift the tax burden away from capital and onto labor, and come “at the expense of lower- and middle-income Americans.”

    Read the full report (pdf)