Income Tax Reform


How to improve the tax code is the subject of much debate. Proponents of reform often call for increasing fairness and simplicity. But people define those concepts in different ways. 

Policymakers focus on what types of income are taxed and at what rate. The broader the scope of the income taxed, the lower the tax rate needs to be to raise a given amount of money. 

The tax system can be used to promote different social policy goals and provide subsidies based on certain circumstances. For example, policymakers need to decide whether to tax some people more than others based on factors such as marital status, presence of children, and homeownership. They must also look at who pays how much in taxes, including as a share of their total income. 

Some options can inadvertently cause distortions in the decisions people make. For example, they may make choices primarily to minimize their tax burden. In addition, some tax provisions significantly increase the complexity of the system, making compliance more challenging. 

The tax code is fraught with tensions and tradeoffs. Efforts to satisfy one principle of tax policy can violate another. The so-called marriage penalty offers a case in point. A married couple is generally treated as one tax unit. They must pay tax on their total combined taxable income. The marriage tax penalty exists when the couple's tax liability is greater than the sum of what the two would pay were they not married and filed as individuals. It is impossible to eliminate the marriage tax penalties within the existing tax structure without violating other desirable features of the tax system, such as progressivity. 

Coordination among states is also an issue, particularly for people who work in one state but live in another. Uncoordinated tax systems can mean paying taxes twice on the same income. In addition, states and localities may compete with one another in offering tax incentives for businesses. Such incentives are often ineffective at driving local job development while diminishing revenue. 



Tax Reform

Tax reform should focus on raising sufficient revenue. It should make the tax system more equitable and efficient. Reforms should: 

  • increase the system's revenue-raising capacity, including broadening the tax base; 
  • maintain ability-to-pay as the standard of tax equity; 
  • result in a distribution of tax burdens that is no less progressive than the current distribution under the individual and corporate income taxes; 
  • avoid negative impacts on important social goals such as retirement savings and health insurance coverage; 
  • reduce distortions in the tax code; 
  • reduce the administrative record-keeping burden on American taxpayers; 
  • be evidence-based with respect to economic development effects; 
  • encourage American competitiveness and job creation; and 
  • provide appropriate relief for people during the transition from one tax policy to another. 

Marriage Penalities

Any further efforts to address marriage penalties should be focused on two-earner couples and structured to avoid increasing marriage bonuses. 

Enhancing progressivity at the state level

States should increase the progressive nature of their income tax systems. This can be done through such means as exempting from state tax rolls people with income below the poverty line; adjusting personal exemptions, standard deductions, credits, tax rates, and brackets; and indexing tax parameters for inflation. 

Business taxes

Reforming business taxes, such as corporate tax or a tax on the financial industry, should be considered in any effort to raise additional revenue. 

Taxes paid to other states

States with income taxes should allow credits for taxes paid by their residents to other states so that no taxpayer is subject to double taxation.