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If Congress departs from its annual tradition of steeply reducing the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), 57 percent of the tax will be paid by the richest five percent of Americans and 91 percent of the tax will be paid by the richest fifth of Americans. If Congress does reduce the AMT as usual, almost all of the tax will be paid by the richest five percent of Americans.

The AMT is one of the factors contributing to the hysteria in Washington about the so-called “fiscal cliff,” the point at which several tax cuts expire and several spending cuts go into effect at the end of this year. Lawmakers and observers often mistakenly portray the AMT as a tax that will affect middle-income Americans if it is not controlled.

The Washington Post reports that if Congress does not act, “the AMT is in line to affect about 33 million households in the 2012 tax year.” The paper also reports that as many as 60 million households could face filing delays because the IRS would have to update its forms and systems to determine who would be subject to the more expansive AMT.

But the vast bulk of actual AMT payments would come from a smaller number of very well-off Americans. CTJ’s fact sheet on the AMT shows that even if Congress fails to provide the usual AMT relief, the middle fifth of Americans would pay just one percent of the AMT. The bottom two fifths of Americans would pay virtually none of the AMT.

The AMT is a backstop tax designed to ensure that well-off Americans pay at least some minimum level of tax no matter how good they are at finding deductions, credits and loopholes that reduce their regular tax calculation. The exemptions in the AMT that keep most of us from paying it have never been indexed to rise with inflation, so Congress has increased them each year for the last several years.

More importantly, the Bush tax cuts reduced the regular income tax without making any permanent corresponding change in the AMT. In other words, most of the impact of an unrestrained AMT would be to limit the Bush tax cuts for well-off Americans. What would be so terrible about that?