The New York Times offers a fair amount of detail concerning the Tax Reform Commission's current intentions. No X-tax in it any more, by the way.
Here is the blow-by-blow with comments on each, followed by my general comments at the end:
1) Elimination of state and local tax deductions for individuals - This is probably correct on the merits given the correlation, however crude, between taxes and benefits received from government services. But political suicide in high-tax states that have lots of voters, and I wouldn't expect even Republicans in New York or California to be pleased. If defended as simplification, I'd note that the complexity of allowing the deduction, while not zero, is not terribly high.
2) Limiting the tax benefit for employer-provided health insurance - More political suicide. But here the change is not merely "probably correct on the merits," like the above, but enormously important to create some possibility, however slim, of slowing the runaway rate of rising healthcare expenditures. People who are less over-insured may be more cost-conscious, although then again this is not a very well-functioning consumer market (given lack of good information) even with more cost-consciousness.
3) Death to the alternative minimum tax (AMT) - obviously necessary, unless one instead greatly raises the exemption amounts and indexes it. But the plan might get less political credit for this from voters than its proponents might hope, because the threat of this tax is still a present not a future one for many Americans.
4) Charitable deductions allowed to all (rather than just itemizers), but only to the extent in excess of 1% of income. Probably a good change, eliminating the penny-ante items and given the lack of a good rationale for allowing it to itemizers only if one likes the deduction. Good for the churches, which to me is unfortunate, but that's just my bias.
5) Lower the amount of mortgage loan principal that can trigger deductible mortgage interest - hear hear, but not exactly likely to be popular. One small technical point, by the way - this is not entirely dissimilar to raising marginal rates for the wealthy, if one's extra income would be spent on a larger house that exceeds the ceiling.
6) Convert various deductions, such as that for mortgage interest, into fixed percentage credits - clearly a better approach than current law to items that aren't part of measuring income and that there is no particular reason to offer with higher reimbursement rates for high-income people.
7) Similarly, family adjustments (personal exemptions et al) are converted into credits. Similar rationale; too bad they aren't refundable (I assume).
8) Only 4 brackets instead of 6, top rate is 33% instead of 35%, lots of people at 15% - The number of brackets is really no big deal from a complexity standpoint. You just look at the table, and I don't think the tax planning aspects of fewer brackets are enormously significant in practice. Here is the nub of the Commission's political problem, which was built into their instructions rather than something they could help. Only a trivial rate reduction (at least apparently) for all the pain they are proposing to inflict. They couldn't cut rates anywhere near as dramatically as happened in 1986, because they had to use nearly all the revenue to pay for the AMT problem, which is still hypothetical not real for lots of people. We now have a verdict: did the AMT end up making tax reform easier or harder? The answer is harder, because it prevents the Commission from offering a more visible tax rate cut in exchange for the base-broadening.
9) Simplified and larger tax-free savings plans, with refundable credits for low-income savers. In general, I'd give this the thumbs up except that I am worried (even with the reduced mortgage interest deduction) about the following arbitrage: borrow against your home and get the credit, invest tax-free in the plans. Result: no more net saving, but the Treasury in effect writes you a check.
I wonder about how the revenue estimators treated the tax-free savings accounts, in determining that the plan is revenue-neutral relative to current law (as modified to extend the Bush tax cuts). I have a sickening suspicion that the estimators might have been told to look only ten years ahead, thus omitting the huge revenue losses in the out years from tax-free withdrawals. (My apologies to the Commission staff if I am wrong about this.) The real hilarity here, if you will, would come from the use of 10-year estimating to ignore the long-term cost, when the Bush Administration so recently was insisting on infinite-horizon forecasting of Social Security.
By the way, I wouldn't bet a nickel on the government's claim (if this plan were to be enacted) that the withdrawals will actually be tax-free. Fast forward ahead to 2020, if you will, when someone who is financially well-off is withdrawing funds from her huge tax-free savings account. Add in the detail that the government might be in desperate fiscal trouble, scrambling to renege on as little as possible of its near-term Social Security and Medicare commitments. What are the odds that the withdrawal will really be tax-free, no matter what Congress said in 2006 or so?
10) Now we get into the really complicated part. Two alternative plans for individuals:
a) No dividend tax, 8.25% capital gains tax on selling corporate stock, interest is taxed like wage income (i.e., up to 33%).
Although the Times account doesn't make this entirely clear, I am guessing this is matched with business taxation plan a: corporations get to deduct interest (though not dividends) and have economic depreciation as under a well-designed income tax.
I am not thrilled with this option. It leaves the debt vs. equity, interest vs. dividend distinction for companies to play games with, stripping out all the interest to go to tax-indifferent parties - unless the plan stops this somehow in a manner not clear to me at the level of detail in the Times article.
To my mind, the only reason for the capital gains tax on selling corporate stock is optics, IF we can be reasonably confident of taxing economic income reasonably broadly at the corporate level.
b) 15% tax rate for individuals on interest, dividends, and capital gain. Companies get to expense their investments, but no interest deduction.
Here the interest vs. dividend distinction, a much bigger thorn in the side of the income tax than is generally recognized, is greatly reduced. But note that there is still a double tax on corporate investment, extended to cover both debt and equity investment. And equity is still better than debt, from a tax standpoint, because companies don't have to pay out the dividends and give their investors the tax hit. (Assuming that the debt vs. equity distinction as applied tracks with whether there is mandatory income recognition at the owner level.)
I suspect that this plan is dead on arrival. The Commission was unable to come up with a politically feasible plan. I don't blame them for this, as I don't think I could have done any better given the constraints under which they had to work. The killer, politically (although it would have had little hope anyway) was having to impose visible base-broadening in exchange for tax reductions that were much less visible than rate reductions because they involved the AMT.
The result could be another bad setback for the tax reform cause, killing the issue until the next time around.
For the Bush Administration, this is certainly not the magic bullet to restore those sinking poll ratings. I would not be surprised if they were to bury this plan under the heaviest rock they can find.
UPDATE: To no one's surprise, business interests have begun lobbying against the Tax Reform Commission's report, without even waiting for it to be issued.