From Baghdad to Iwo Jima

Posted: Apr 18, 2003 12:00 AM

Twelve years ago, after the first U.S. victory in the Gulf, President George H.W. Bush was unwilling to invest his new political capital in much needed economic stimulus. Instead, he weakly called for a transportation bill -- a huge political miscue. What he wound up with was a budget-busting Christmas tree adorned with expensive district-by-district ornaments. What he didn't get was enough pre-election economic growth to counter his misbegotten tax hike of 1990.

President George W. Bush's advisors are well aware of this. They recognize that a capital shortage following the three-year stock market plunge continues to hold back the business capital spending that is vital to new job creation. Therefore, virtually everyone in the White House sees the new tax-cut fight more in terms of a tough military campaign like Iwo Jima than the easy capture of Baghdad. In other words, they will do whatever it takes to win on tax cuts, understanding that such a victory is vital to the president's political credibility and his re-election next year.

In Monday's Wall Street Journal, Shailagh Murray suggests that the president's dividend tax cut is dead. But the White House believes otherwise. A senior West Wing staffer told me that the administration wants the whole package: "It's the number one priority around here, including the entire dividend piece."

Here's where the tax cut stands. Senate finance chairman Charles Grassley promised his colleagues Olympia Snowe and George Voinovich that his committee would not pass a tax-cut bill exceeding $350 billion in static costs. The Iowa senator said the deal was necessary to produce their two votes for a budget resolution -- although last year, under Democratic leadership, the Senate operated without a resolution.

House leaders are furious at the Grassley deal. Speaker Dennis Hastert said, "With all due respect to Sen. Grassley, he is ultimately irrelevant because our agreement was made with the Senate leadership, and they have the power to keep it."

More, if the House Ways and Means Committee reports out a $550 billion bill, then the leadership of both Houses, working with the administration, can craft a compromise that will be closer to the House version.

And here's some strategy. If the budget revenue target is squeezed down, it might make sense to tax dividends and capital gains at the same 18 percent or 20 percent marginal rate. This simple logic would tax all investment income the same. It would amount to a 50 percent reduction in the dividend tax, which was 39.6 percent before President Bush's first tax cut in 2001.

Half a loaf is better than no loaf at all. It would still provide a strong stock market incentive. And surprisingly, a 20 percent dividend tax rate would "cost" only $90 billion over 10 years, compared with $400 billion for the 100 percent exclusion. Even at 20 percent, if the cut is made retroactive, investor and corporate behavior would be significantly altered. The demand for dividend-paying equity shares would shoot up, corporate de-leveraging out of debt would accelerate, and corporate governance would become more transparent. Down the road, future tax bills could even lower the dividend rate to zero.

In addition, after-tax profits declared by a company, but retained on a balance sheet, would still be considered "deemed dividends" to provide a capital-gains break for investors. This would create a disincentive for corporate tax evasion and boost the market capitalization of a firm's stock.

In scorekeeping terms, reducing the dividend tax rate will undoubtedly spur higher share prices and a significant revenue increase from resulting capital-gains realizations. After the 1997 capital-gains tax cut that lowered the rate to 20 percent from 28 percent, capital-gains-related tax receipts soared to $120 billion from $60 billion. This experience could be used as a precedent to lower the cost of the dividend tax cut in the current session.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay remains a strong supporter of the dividend tax cut. He's expected to maintain maximum pressure on Ways and Means chair Bill Thomas to include a dividend piece in the committee markup.

The administration, meanwhile, is considering a presidential address before Congress to underscore the need to pass the entire tax-cut plan as a strong postwar economic growth measure. But a presidential speech -- one that goes over the heads of Congress and communicates directly with the public -- may be necessary.

Polls today show that prospective voters do not yet see how a dividend-centered tax-cut plan will lead to more jobs and economic growth. But if Bush can make the case that a revival of business and the stock market is necessary for job creation, then Americans who have come to trust him overwhelmingly on foreign policy and national security will be more willing to put their faith in his economic battle plan.