Washington's effort to avoid the fiscal cliff did not involve a grand deal that President Obama had sought, but the American Taxpayer Relief Act, as it's called, certainly did involve a grand compromise. And maybe we can breathe easy for a while. But the new Congress will soon be greeted with renewal brinksmanship and squabbles as it wrestles with raising the federal debt ceiling and making spending cuts that were absent from the fiscal-cliff fix.
In the meantime, older Americans have been spared any meaningful hits, unless they make more than $400,000 a year ($450,000 for couples). In this case, they will see big tax increases and also reductions in allowable tax deductions. But for the rest of us, the law hurriedly and reluctantly passed includes eight key features of special interest.
No Social Security cuts. Lawmakers dropped a proposal to use a less-generous price index to determine the program's annual cost of living adjustment (COLA). This would have reduced future benefit increases by roughly 3 percent a year, adding up to an increasingly large benefit cut over time. Meanwhile, the end of the temporary two-year reduction in an employee's share of payroll taxes (from 6.2 to 4.2 percent of covered payroll) removes a linkage between Social Security and broader government funding that program defenders are glad to see. They want Social Security to be treated independently of broader deficit discussions. The program, they note correctly, has never added a penny to federal spending deficits.
No Medicare sequestration cuts. The automatic spending cuts set to occur will now be put off for two months. That's hardly more than a temporary and small Band-Aid, but it does spare seniors from a 2 percent cut in Medicare spending.
"Doc fix" extended a year. Medicare payments to physicians participating in the program were set to drop by nearly 27 percent due to an existing law that tied their payments to rates of inflation. This provision is regularly extended by Congress and this latest fix will cost a projected $10.6 billion this year. Payment cuts to hospitals and other Medicare service providers will pay for the fix. They're none too pleased with that, but consumers are not likely to be directly affected. And those perennial threats by doctors to leave the program can be shelved ... until the next time a fix is needed.
Low-income Medicare supports extended. The Medicare Rights Center hails the new law's one-year extension of several Medicare assistance payments for lower-income seniors. Programs extended include help paying Medicare premiums (known as the qualifying individual program) and exceptions to payment caps for certain physical, occupational, and speech therapies. Funding for counseling and service help to disabled Medicare beneficiaries was also included, the Center said. "Given that less than one-half of those eligible for these benefits are enrolled," Center President Joe Baker says, "extension of this funding represents a critical step forward in building health and economic security for some of the most vulnerable beneficiaries."
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Investment tax rates. Tax rates on capital gains and dividend income remain unchanged for nearly all taxpayers—15 percent for most people and zero for taxpayers in the 10-percent and 15-percent income tax brackets. For taxpayers making more than $400,000 ($450,000 for couples), the rates rise to 20 percent on both capital gains and dividends.
Estate taxes. Estates worth up to more than $5.2 million (double that for couples) will be permanently exempt from taxes under the new law, and the tax rate on amounts above this is 40 percent. These terms are much more generous than those supported by the White House and many Democrats. It is likely that neither party will want to revisit this contentious issue for a long time.
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Roth IRAs. The two-month sequestration delay carries a $30 billion price tag. To help pay about 40 percent of it (over 10 years, not two months), the new law expands the ability of people with tax-deferred retirement investment accounts to convert them into Roth IRAs if their employer offers such accounts. Roths are funded with dollars that have already been taxed but future investment earnings are exempt from income taxes. The $12 billion in extra revenue expected from the provision comes from the taxation of funds expected to be moved from tax-exempt accounts into Roths. The text of the law says an employee may "transfer any amount not otherwise distributable under the plan," indicating there are no income or other limits reducing the amount of funds that can be transferred to a Roth.
Long-term care. One of the biggest flops of health reform was its long-term care insurance program, known as the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports (CLASS) Act. It would have created a long-term care insurance program for employees, but healthier people were deemed unlikely to enroll in the program because it was made voluntary. If only sicker people signed up, there was no way to operate the program without incurring unacceptable deficits. The new law formally ends the CLASS program. However, it does set up a new study commission to develop a national plan for providing long-term care to the nation's growing numbers of seniors. Such a plan has long been called for by aging experts, who note that the United States lags far behind other developed economies in planning for its aging population.