Remember the flat tax? The policy proposal gained traction among conservative politicians for a while in the 1990s, but it withered amid little real-world political support.
Now it’s back, as a fiscal policy cornerstone of Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback’s campaign for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.
It calls for earned income to be taxed at the same marginal rate, unlike the current system, which has different tax brackets for different incomes. Typically, proponents of a flat tax call for eliminating most deductions except for a sizable individual exemption.
“We need a flat tax instead of the dreadful, incomprehensible tax code we now have,” Brownback wrote in the letter that announced the creation of his presidential exploratory committee.
Brownback is best known for his conservative stances on social issues such as abortion and stem cell research. But he touts himself as the Republican field’s truest conservative candidate on fiscal issues as well, and his call for a flat tax is in line with that.
Last year, he proposed allowing Washington, D.C., residents to opt into a flat-tax system, an idea that never made it out of committee. Under his plan, the earned income of District of Columbia residents would have been taxed at a flat rate, with an exemption of $5,000 to $7,000 per family member. The formula could provide a national model for Brownback in a presidential campaign.
He hasn’t proposed a specific rate but envisions an optional flat-tax system to coexist with the current system, allowing taxpayers to choose.
“It’s sort of a 30,000-foot approach at this point,” Brian Hart, a Brownback spokesman, said of the lack of specifics.
Proponents of a flat tax say it’s a simple, efficient system that rewards hard work, treats everybody equally and would save the economy billions in tax-preparation costs.
“Special interests from the entire spectrum in Washington have carved out special favors for themselves in the tax code,” said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, a Washington nonprofit that advocates a flat tax. “And that’s a burden on the middle class.”
Critics say a flat tax is a regressive idea that, unless the size of government is reduced dramatically, would mean higher taxes for the middle class.
“You take care of the people at the bottom, you cut taxes for the people at the top and, if you’re keeping the same size government, you have to raise taxes on people in the middle,” said Len Burman, director of the centrist Tax Policy Center, a Washington research center.
Last week, Brownback signed a pledge – proffered by the conservative group Americans for Tax Reform – not to raise taxes, a move that further buttresses his bona fides among fiscally conservative Republican primary voters but that might make instituting a flat tax more difficult.
Brownback, who’s long sought to reduce the size of the federal government, hopes to ensure that any concrete proposal wouldn’t fall disproportionately on the middle class.
Burman pointed out the difficulty of full-on tax restructuring.
“Politically, each one of those things that makes the tax code complex has a constituency,” Burman said, citing the many deductions, loopholes and exemptions that flat-tax proponents hope to abolish.
The last times that the idea of a flat tax received much attention were the Republican presidential primaries of 1996 and 2000, when multimillionaire publisher Steve Forbes made it the centerpiece of his expensive but fruitless campaigns.
So far, Brownback is the only 2008 major-party presidential candidate to embrace a flat tax. Others, including Arizona Sen. John McCain, a leading possible candidate, generally call for something along the lines of a “fairer and flatter” tax code without specifically advocating a flat tax.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is the only other candidate to sign the “no tax hike” pledge, but he hasn’t provided details of what his tax policy would be.