There's been some media attention to the strange one-year repeal of the federal estate tax, and a few comments on the failure of Congress to pass an "extenders" bill to prevent a number of tax provisions from expiring at the end of 2009, but I have yet to see any public comment on what will be THE political story of 2010, which is that all of the Bush tax cuts will be expiring at the end of the year and, unless Congress acts, almost every tax-paying American will be paying more in federal income tax next year.
For the wealthiest Americans, allowing the Bush tax cuts to "sunset" will be quite a shock. A family of four with $500,000 of income filing a joint return with no itemized deductions would pay $136,208 in federal income tax in 2010, but will have to pay $158,801 in 2011, a $22,607 increase, unless Congress acts. If that $500,000 of income includes qualified dividend income, which is taxed at the capital gain rate of 15% instead of the maximum rate of 35% on ordinary income, the results are even more dramatic. In 2010, $500,000 of income with $250,000 of qualified dividends would result in $89,201 of federal tax, but in 2011 the tax jumps up to $158,801, an increase of $69,600, or almost 80%, in only one year.
Barack Obama campaigned on the pledge (which he has repeated several times since being elected), that he will not raise taxes for those earning less than $250,000. For a family of four with $250,000 of income, their tax bill is $51,701 under current law, but goes to $59,341 in 2011, a $7,640 increase.
Reducing the family's income reduces the impact, but the impact is still there. For a family earning $50,000, the tax bill would be $2,763 under current law, but jumps to $3,878, more than $1,000 more, in 2010.
Even a family earning as little as $30,000 would be affected. That family would owe $400 in federal income tax in 2010, but if the 10% tax bracket and marriage penalty relief both expire, that family's tax bill more than doubles, going from $400 to $878.
And here is where the Senate will jump into inaction. As we have seen very clearly in the attempt at health care reform, it takes only 41 Republican votes in the Senate (which the Republicans now have with newly-elected Scott Brown seated) to block any attempt to raise income tax rates for the wealthy. But these tax increases are already enacted and will happen if Congress does nothing, and it also takes only 41 Democratic votes in the Senate (or the Democratic majority in the more progressive House) to block any extension of the tax cuts for the wealthy.
So it's going to be like health care, only worse. At least with health care, Republicans paid lip service to the idea of reform and compromise, but when it comes to taxes Republicans are going to even pretend to be interested in negotiating with Democrats. With increasing pressure from "tea partiers" and the extreme right, and facing election battles at the end of 2010, Republicans have no reason to do anything but draw a hard line and insist on making the Bush tax cuts permanent.
And Republicans also have every reason to block anything the Democrats try to enact, because they would really like to go into the 2010 election being able to point to enormous tax increases on working Americans in 2011 and blaming it on the Democrats who control Congress.
So it's going to be bloody. It's going to be a bare-knuckled street brawl with knives and chains, and if the Democrats don't get their act together and enact real tax reform before November, they're going to find themselves down on the ground, bloody, and being kicked in the face.