One sentence summary: The Congress did act in time to avoid sending the nation over the fiscal cliff, though the final bill fails to address some of the nation’s longer-term fiscal challenges, setting Congress—and the nation—up for another round of heated debate and discussion as early as next month.
Giving credence to the concept of ‘better late than never’, the House passed the fiscal cliff bill the Senate had adopted earlier this week. There was a bunch of political posturing (both sides of the hill, both sides of the aisle) that I won’t detail here. All we need to know is that the nation barely avoided the fiscal cliff. I’ve bulleted the details below. Take care to read the full summary, though, as the deal Congress passed is not comprehensive and sets the stage for an additional set of fiscal conversations in the next two months that could prove just as heated and damaging.
You can read the full text of the bill.
What’s IN the Fiscal Cliff Deal
- The Congressional Budget Office estimates the bill increases the deficit by $3.97 trillion over ten years, compared to current baseline.
- Income Tax Rates: Makes permanent the Bush income tax rates for individuals earning less than $400k (families earning less than $450k). For households above these thresholds, the top rate will rise from 35% to 39.6%.
- Sequester: The bill delays the onset of the sequester’s automatic, across-the-board cuts by 2 months. The two months of cuts are replaced by $12 billion in new revenue and $12 billion in spending cuts.
- The $12 billion in discretionary cuts is split evenly between defense and non-defense spending ($6 billion each). The cut lowers the current discretionary cap for FY13 ($2 billion each) and FY14 ($4 billion each).
- Capital Gains/Dividend Tax Rates: Capital gains and dividend tax rates will increase from 15% to 20%.
- Alternative Minimum Tax: The AMT was levied to ensure the wealthiest Americans paid their fair share of taxes. It was not indexed for inflation but has historically been patched to ensure a growing portion of middle-class families aren’t caught in its net. This fiscal deal makes the AMT permanently indexed to inflation.
- Limits Tax Breaks for High-income Households: Limits how much individuals making $250k (couples making $300k) may take in itemized deductions and personal exemptions.
- Tax Breaks for Working Families: Five year extension of the American Opportunity Tax Credit (claimed for college-related expenses); the Child Tax Credit; and the Earned Income Tax Credit.
- Business Tax Incentives: The bill extends a handful of tax breaks for business for two years, including the production tax credit for wind project developers, research/development tax credit, and a measure allowing for bonus depreciation.
- Unemployment: Continues a federal extension of unemployment benefits for one year.
- Medicare Doc Fix: Prevents a scheduled cut in Medicare reimbursement.
- Farm Bill: Congress was unable to pass the farm bill, which was set to expire. The fiscal cliff bill includes a 9-month extension for certain portions of the farm bill.
- Estate Tax: The estate tax will rise from 35% to 40% (with the first $5 million in assets exempted).
- Congressional Pay Freeze: Members of Congress will NOT see a pay increase (President Obama had recently authorized a congressional pay raise).
- FICA Increase: The deal does NOT extend the 2% reduction in FICA witholding, meaning wage earners will see a 2% increase in tax witholding in paychecks starting in January 2013. This 'new rate' (6.2%) is the same rate as in 2010 and prior years. That translates into about $1,000 less per year for an individual earning $50,000.
Education-Related Tax Provisions in the Fiscal Cliff Deal (Hat Tip: CEF!)
- Permanently extends expanded Coverdell Education Savings Accounts
- Permanently extends the expanded exclusion for employer-provided educational assistance
- Permanently extends the expanded student loan interest deduction
- Permanently extends the exclusion from income of amounts received under certain scholarship programs.
- Permanently extends the arbitrage rebate exception for school construction bonds
- Permanently extends tax-exempt private activity bonds for qualified education facilities
- Temporarily extends the American Opportunity Tax Credit (Five years)
- Temporarily extends the deduction for certain expenses of elementary and secondary school teachers. (2 years: 2012 and 2013)
- Temporarily extends the above-the-line deduction for qualified tuition related expenses. (2 years: 2012 and 2013)
- Temporarily extends the Qualified zone academy bonds (QZABs) allocation of bond limitation. The provision extends the QZAB program for 2012 and 2013 providing $400 million in bond volume per year.
- Temporarily extends the tax credit for research and experimentation expenses. (2 years: 2012 and 2013)
What’s NOT in the Fiscal Cliff Deal
- Debt Ceiling. The debt ceiling debate from 2011 is what triggered the process that brought us to sequestration now. The debt ceiling was raised then, but our nation has already reached that higher cap. Treasury Secretary Geithner announced on Monday (12/31) that the nation reached the debt ceiling. The treasury has enough flexibility to cover about two months worth of borrowing, but that means we should brace ourselves for another equally rough conversation about raising the debt ceiling in late February/early March.
- Sequester: The bill delays the cuts of the sequester by two months (to March 1). This creates a new deadline over spending cuts that coincides with the above mentioned debt ceiling discussion.
- Tax Code and Mandatory Entitlement Spending: The fiscal cliff deal didn’t address any of the nation’s long-term fiscal issues, including tax code and mandatory program reform.
- Annual Appropriations Process: Congress has yet to conclude its annual work for federal funding in FY13, which started October 1 (Not that its any comfort, but Congress very rarely finishes its appropriations work on time, instead relying on continuing resolutions). The current CR for FY13 expires March 27, meaning Congress will have to pass another CR (or finish the appropriations bills!) to avoid a federal government shutdown.
- Keep in mind, Congress will technically start their work on FY14 (starting Oct 1, 2013) in February, when President Obama releases his budget proposal.