White House, Congress seek to avert “fiscal cliff”

All eyes are on Washington as the White House and the GOP seek to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff” before the end of the year.  President Obama and House Republicans are negotiating the fate of the Bush-era tax cuts, mandatory spending cuts and more in the last weeks of 2012 and negotiations are expected to go right up to the end of the year.  At the same time, the IRS has cautioned that the start of the 2013 filing season could be delayed for many taxpayers because of late tax legislation.

Taxes and spending

Almost immediately after President Obama won re-election, Democrats and Republicans scrambled to stake out their positions over the fiscal cliff.  Unless the White House and the GOP reach an agreement, the Bush-era tax cuts will expire for all taxpayers after 2012 and across-the-board spending cuts will take effect.  Many popular but temporary tax incentives, known as tax extenders, expired after 2011, with many more scheduled to expire after 2012.  The alternative minimum tax (AMT), intended many years ago to apply to wealthy taxpayers, is on track to encroach on more middle income taxpayers because it is not indexed for inflation.  Also, the employee-side payroll tax cut is scheduled to expire after 2012.

Since winning a second term, President Obama has repeated that the Bush-era tax cuts should expire for higher income individuals after 2012.  The top two tax rates would rise to 36 percent and 39.6 percent after 2012. All of the remaining rates would be extended.  Tax rates on capital gains and dividends would also increase for higher income individuals. On the campaign trail, President Obama described higher income taxpayers as individuals with incomes above $200,000 and families with incomes above $250,000.

President Obama has talked about trimming $4 trillion from the federal budget deficit.  Approximately $1.6 trillion would come from increased taxes on higher income individuals.  To achieve a target of $1.6 trillion in tax revenue, the Bush-era tax cuts could not be extended for higher income individuals.  Other incentives for higher income individuals would likely be curtailed or possibly eliminated under the President’s plan. These include the personal exemption phaseout (PEP) and the Pease limitation on itemized deductions. President Obama may also re-propose his “Buffett Rule,” which, the President has explained, would ensure that individuals making over $1 million a year pay a minimum effective tax rate of at least 30 percent.

The GOP, its majority reduced in the House after the November elections, has offered few details about its plans to avoid the fiscal cliff.  House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has indicated that the GOP may be open to raising revenue by closing tax loopholes and capping certain unspecified deductions for higher income individuals.  Revenue could also be raised by limiting or abolishing business tax deductions and credits.  Among the business tax incentives most often hinted at for elimination are ones for oil and gas producers. President Obama, however, has said that he will not support a deficit reduction plan that relies on closing undefined tax loopholes.

Possible scenarios

Looking ahead, several scenarios may play out before year-end.  President Obama and the GOP could agree on a tax and deficit reduction package that meets or comes close to the President’s targets.  President Obama and the GOP may agree to extend the Bush-era tax cuts and delay the spending cuts for three or six months to give everyone more time to negotiate a long-term deal.  On the other hand, both sides could fail to reach any agreement before year-end and the Bush-era tax cuts would expire as scheduled.  The spending cuts also would kick-in as scheduled.

Filing season

Whenever Congress changes the tax laws, the IRS has to reprogram its return processing systems.  Tax laws passed late in 2012 have the potential to delay the start of the 2013 filing season depending on how long it takes the IRS to reprogram its systems.

IRS officials have told Congress that they are preparing for late tax legislation, especially legislation on the AMT.  In past years, Congress has routinely “patched” the AMT to shield middle income taxpayers from its reach.  The IRS appears to be anticipating that Congress will patch the AMT for 2012.  If Congress does not, the IRS has warned that the start of the 2013 filing season could be delayed for as many as 60 million taxpayers.

The IRS also must reprogram its processing systems for the tax extenders.  These tax law changes generally do not require the level of reprogramming the AMT patch requires.  The IRS has predicted that any year-end extension of the extenders will be manageable.

Please contact our office if you have any questions about the tax and spending negotiations underway in Washington.

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