Michael Hiltzik Columnist
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What do Republicans have against alimony? And other weird questions raised by the GOP tax bill

What does the Republican Party have against divorce?

That’s the question raised by one of the provisions in the tax bill unveiled by House Republicans last week. It’s one of many provisions that will have the effect of squeezing middle-income taxpayers, with little rationale beyond producing a few ducats more that can be given to the wealthy, who are the GOP’s patrons. The mark-up phase of the tax bill’s movement toward a vote — call it the dickering-over-details process — is beginning Monday.

We’ll cover several of the details here. But let’s start with alimony.

Under current law, alimony paid normally is deducted from the payer’s income, and declared as income by the recipient. The tax bill would require that it be paid from after-tax dollars — in other words, the payer would lose the deduction, although the alimony presumably would be tax-free to the recipient.

The deduction cost the Treasury about $950 million in 2015, the last year available. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones observes that as a share of the federal budget, that’s so tiny that it doesn’t even rank as “scrounging for nickels under the cushions to pay for their corporate tax cuts.” Drum points us to a painstaking analysis by Stuart Levine, a Baltimore tax attorney who writes at the Reality-Based Community blog.

Levine notes that the GOP’s stated justification for the change doesn’t hold water. The explanation from the staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation is that the provision is aimed at bringing the tax treatment of alimony into sync with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Gould vs. Gould. There the high court held that alimony isn’t taxable income to the recipient.

Couple of problems with that, as Levine points out. One is that Gould vs. Gould was handed down in 1917. Another is that it was reversed by Congress — in 1942, which was 75 years ago. Since then, Congress has largely steered clear of tinkering with marital finances any further. Until now.

The Ways and Means Committee Republicans further denigrate the current treatment of alimony as “effectively a ‘divorce subsidy’… in that a divorced couple can often achieve a better tax result for payments between them than a married couple can.”

As Levine writes, “in other words, for 75 years there has been a recognition that a divorced couple has financial burdens that are greater than a married couple and the GOP is simply going to ignore those financial burdens.”

It’s tempting to view the alimony provision as a moralistic attack on divorce, but that would be a pretty narrow definition of morality. It’s fairly widely accepted in American society that sometime forcing a couple to stay together is more harmful to the family, including children, than allowing them to separate. That’s why divorce law has been consistently liberalized since the 1950s.

What’s really at work here is the GOP’s search for money to upstream to the rich as tax cuts. In almost every case, the alimony recipient is going to have a lower marginal tax rate than the payer. (Despite changes in family structure over recent decades, men still are usually the payers of alimony and women the recipients.) So the recipient will pay less tax on the alimony received than the payer.

Here’s how it would work, based on the IRS tax tables for 2016. Let’s say the payer’s annual income is $98,000, and the recipient’s nothing, outside of $30,000 alimony. Under current law, the payer would have a tax bill of $13,015, based on income of $68,000 net of alimony. The recipient would pay $4,183 in tax on the alimony. Combined tax: $17,198.

Force the payer to cover the entire tax based on $98,000 income, and the tax bill comes to $20,750. The change produces $3,552 to fund that tax cut for the 1%.

Levine quotes a colleague’s observation that “this loss will be incurred at exactly the moment when the former husband and wife are most economically fragile. This is such awful public policy that it is hard to believe that the people who proposed it understand the consequences of what they propose.” Well, the proposers plainly understand the bottom-line consequences: They acknowledge that the change would generate $8.3 billion in revenue over 10 years.

At best, the change will complicate alimony negotiations in a divorce. Worse, it’s almost certain to come out of the recipient’s hide. “Simply put, the payment of alimony, which generally flows to the wife in a divorce, will become more expensive,” says Levine, who calls this provision part of the GOP’s war on women. He’s correct.

The alimony provision is just one of many that have analysts trying to figure out what the GOP is up to. I covered several of these petty cruelties, as I labeled them — the repeal of deductions for teachers’ out-of-pocket classroom supply spending, interest on student loans, medical expenses and adoption.

Here are a few more:

Deduction for employers providing access to disabled workers: Current law allows small businesses to take a partial tax credit for the cost to accommodate disabled workers, including removing physical barriers, buying equipment or even hiring interpreters or providing audio devices for people with hearing problems. The tax plan kills that deduction. The business must have gross income of $1 million or less, or no more than 30 employees. We keep hearing from the GOP echo chamber that small business is the lifeblood of the U.S. economy. Nevertheless, this provision strikes directly at those businesses’ income, and the welfare of disabled workers. This change would raise an incredibly petty $300 million over 10 years.

Dependent care flexible spending accounts: The tax bill would do away with flexible spending accounts for dependent care. These are usually applied to child-care costs or the expenses of dealing with family members who are “physically or mentally unable to care for themselves.” Current law allows families to put up to $5,000 into such accounts, pre-tax. This repeal would put $6.5 billion into the pockets of the wealthy over 10 years. Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee assert that the tax credit would no longer be necessary since the tax bill is providing other child-care credits.

University and graduate school tuition: The tax bill would repeal a tax break for graduate students employed by universities as teaching assistants on terms that include waiving their tuition. The tax bill would treat the waived tuition as income to the students — who are, obviously, among the lowest-income members of society. The repeal also would cover tuition reductions offered to children of faculty members and staff — a benefit colleges and universities use to recruit faculty at lower salaries than they might otherwise have to pay.

The tax bill also would repeal a tax break that helps ordinary families pay for higher education. Interest payable on U.S. savings bonds issued after 1989 is exempt from tax if it’s used to pay for university tuition and fees as long as family income is less than $147,250 (for couples). The tax bill eliminates the break. Combined with the repeal of the deduction for interest on student loans, which we covered here, these rollbacks would put more than $45 billion into the pockets of the wealthy, at the expense of university students and teachers.

Orphan drugs: The tax plan would repeal a tax credit for development of drugs for rare diseases, usually defined as conditions affecting fewer than 200,000 people. The provision has been in effect since 1983, but it’s controversial. It’s vulnerable to being gamed by big pharmaceutical companies. But the National Organization for Rare Disorders says repealing the incentive could cause 33% fewer orphan drugs to come to market.

The Food and Drug Administration is taking a close look at the orphan drug program, and the Government Accountability Office is pondering an investigation. But there’s no indication that these considerations played a part in the proposed repeal of the tax credit. What did matter is the price tag: The repeal would provide $54 billion over 10 years to fund the tax cut for the rich.

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