Postcardizing Schedule A

[ Posted Thursday, November 2nd, 2017 – 17:42 UTC ]

With much fanfare, the Republican tax plan was unveiled today. This is an incredibly complex piece of legislation, so it's going to take more than one column to adequately examine what all their proposed changes will mean to American taxpayers. On many of these details, the GOP kept their cards pretty close to their vest until today, meaning this is the first chance everyone's got to figure out how each of these proposed changes will impact them personally. One idea which emerged a few days before the proposal was formally unveiled is to shrink Schedule A to "the size of a postcard." Schedule A is where taxpayers figure their itemized deductions, so it encompasses a lot of the other GOP proposals as well. But today, I'm going to focus on two in particular, because they provide some of the strongest arguments for Democrats and progressives to use in opposing this plan.

First, the basics. Taxpayers either take the standard deduction or they itemize deductions. The standard deduction exists to, essentially, save time and money for people who don't have a whole lot of deductions in the first place. For most current taxpayers, if you don't own your home it probably isn't worth your time to itemize. This is a generalization, but it's the usual rule of thumb people use. The basic idea is simple: if you have enough legitimate deductions, then you can claim them all (with some restrictions). If you don't have any, or have only a few deductions, then the standard deduction is going to turn out to be more than you can add up on Schedule A, so you take that instead (and, by doing so, avoid all the paperwork and time it takes to fill out Schedule A).

The first thing that became obvious in the Republican tax plan is that they really want to discourage people from filling out Schedule A. I have no idea why this is so, but it's pretty clear that this was a big goal. Republicans almost doubled the amount of the standard deduction, meaning for millions the standard deduction will now be higher than the itemization they've been doing all these years. This is going to result in far fewer taxpayers filing Schedule A. There is also the complication of getting rid of the personal exemption (which I discussed yesterday), but overall the goal seems to be to limit the number of people itemizing their deductions. This will save many families the time and effort it takes to put together the paperwork necessary to itemize, it is fair to point out.

But it's the second GOP goal that should alarm people, and that Democrats should be forcefully pointing out. Because not only are Republicans trying to limit those who do file Schedule A, they are also heavily limiting the allowable deductions. This is where the "postcardization" comes into play. But while some of these have gotten a lot of attention (such as removing the deduction for state and local income taxes), there are two which until today have gotten no attention whatsoever. Republicans are proposing the complete elimination of the deduction for medical expenses and the deduction for casualty and theft losses. Eliminating these deductions is a particularly cruel thing to do, no matter how many people actually benefit from them on their taxes.

Shifting most of the people who now itemize their deductions into the higher standard deduction is going to mean that average families will rarely ever fill out a Schedule A, which they'll do only if they face extraordinary financial circumstances in a single year. Republicans are also making this shift happen by limiting the amount of property taxes which are deductible to $10,000 and limiting the mortgage interest which can be claimed going forward. This will mean even owners of expensive houses may not top the standard deduction if they fill out Schedule A. But what the new changes will also mean is that any family which faced an economic disaster in any particular year will not see any tax help because of it.

Both the medical and casualty/theft deductions are already severely constrained -- so much so that they are currently completely useless for most families in most years. After figuring your Adjusted Gross Income (A.G.I.), you add up all your unreimbursed medical expenses (meaning that anything insurance pays for doesn't count). But these medical expenses must top 10 percent of your A.G.I. before you can claim them -- and then you can only claim any money above that amount. A family with a $50,000 A.G.I. doesn't get any tax break for the first $5,000 they spend on medical expenses, in other words. If they spend a total of $8,000, they only get to deduct $3,000 of it.

Casualty and theft are treated in a similar fashion. If you are robbed or a disaster strikes your property, you can claim a loss on Schedule A. But, as with the medical expenses, any amount reimbursed by an insurance company doesn't count. So we're talking about uninsured loss here, mostly. This could mean the deductible on your insurance (if you have a $20,000 deductible on your homeowners policy, for instance), or it could mean expenses the insurance doesn't cover (claims which they deny, in other words). But once again, as with medical expenses, this only applies to the amounts above 10 percent of your A.G.I., meaning you've got to have a rather large loss to even qualify for the deduction.

Stop and think about those two things for a moment. A medical emergency happens or a physical disaster strikes your home and you don't have insurance (or have inadequate insurance, or your claim is denied, or whatever). You have to spend a whopping 10 percent of your (adjusted) income before you even get to claim a single dollar on either of these calamities on Schedule A. But then, to aid you in what is obviously a very difficult situation, you are allowed to deduct any of your costs above this high bar of 10 percent of A.G.I. Such a tax break could help you through what are obviously some tough times.

But if the Republican tax plan passes, neither of these things will be deductible any more. Not content with pushing most filers off Schedule A in the first place, they want to remove Schedule A as last-resort disaster aid as well. For other deductions, the math is pretty simple: add them up and see whether they're above the standard deduction or not. Most filers will take the standard deduction. But then in a disastrous year, the option to use Schedule A to get a break on extremely high medical expenses or recovering from a flood or hurricane or wildfire will no longer exist for anyone anymore.

There are other deductions which will also disappear if Schedule A is postcardized. As mentioned, state income taxes are currently getting the most attention. What will remain on Schedule A are deductions for: (some) property taxes, (some) mortgage interest, and charitable giving. What will disappear from Schedule A in addition to state and local income taxes are things like: unreimbursed employee expenses (such as paying for your own business travel, union dues, vocational education, etc.), tax preparation fees, investment expenses, safety deposit box rent, and other smaller writeoffs.

Any or all of those could be argued politically, pro and con, without entering into the realm of meanness for the sake of being mean. This is just not so with the medical and disaster deductions. With the higher standard deduction, the majority of families who would ever use these deductions are the ones hit with extraordinary costs following a family emergency of epic proportions. Think: hurricane victims, wildfire victims, and unexpectedly high medical costs for one reason or another. Those are the people Republicans are taking money away from in order to shower tax cuts on corporate America.

To put this another way: the Democratic talking points just about write themselves on the elimination of these two deductions. Sooner or later the conversation is going to move on from just state and local taxes, and Democrats should have these arguments ready to deploy. Because the most obvious weakness in the Republican postcardization of Schedule A is the fact that they are trying to screw over disaster victims. Most families will (hopefully) never have to use these deductions at all, but for the ones that do it will be nothing short of pouring salt in their wounds.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


3 Comments on “Postcardizing Schedule A”

  1. [1] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    I'll bet the corporations get to keep most of their deductions.

  2. [2] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    Corporations for the most part don't even have 'deductions' in the sense that individuals do. 'Deductions' for corporations are called 'expenses', meaning costs of doing business. The costs of doing business (expenses) are always fully deductible.

  3. [3] 
    TheStig wrote:

    "This is a complete redesign of the code, so we can simplify it so much that 9 out of 10 Americans can file using a postcard-style system, lowing the rates, protecting more of the first dollars you earn," said Kevin Brady (8th Congressional District, Texas).

    Nine out of those same 10 Americans should be on the lookout for a hefty, "convenience fee" that comes with that new postcard. I hear the pitch of lower rates and protection of more cute and cuddly "first dollars," but I would like to see the fine print. What about the deficit? Does Congress still care about that? Is this thing going to get scored, or is Congress in a big rush? Can I see my score? Maybe each tax payer can get one on post card. Try before you buy(-in).

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