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Fiscal Cliff 2013: How Congress Can Easily Increase Tax Revenue While Not Raising Taxes

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of articles covering progress of the lame duck session of Congress.

Fiscal cliff negotiations are starting off as a game of semantics. The GOP will not raise tax rates but are willing to look at increasing revenue. This would involve changes to the tax code that would do away with certain deductions. The result would be higher tax bills to some individuals – but also increased revenue. Will this game of semantics be the only way to prevent going over the fiscal cliff?

Tax rates are defined as the percentage at which an individual or corporation is taxed. Tax deductions are defined as a deduction from gross income that arises due to various types of expenses incurred by a taxpayer. Since they are removed from taxable income, they effectively lower the amount of taxes paid.  Both tax rates and tax deductions impact the final tax bill paid by an individual or company. So whether tax revenue is increased through higher tax rates or lower tax deductions, there is no difference in the bottom line. Someone is going to pay more.

How this will play out is yet to be determined. It’s possible the mortgage interest and charitable contribution deductions will be eliminated for higher income earners. The Adjusted Minimum Tax calculation formula may also be fixed so as not to apply to middle and lower income earners. Grover Norquist has been quoted as saying this does not constitute a violation of his pledge.

In debate and politics, the words used are just as important as the context. If creating higher tax payments for a certain group is more acceptable if labeled as increasing revenue rather than increasing taxes, why complain if the result is the same. Congress needs to pass legislation addressing the fiscal cliff and other issues during the lame duck session and the first year of the new Congress. We can’t be concerned with word-games if they work.  

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