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All eyes will be on former Secretary of State, and now presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton as she sets out a policy agenda during the opening months of her campaign. While in recent years Clinton has not gotten into the nitty-gritty of tax policy, she does have a long voting record on these issues as a senator from New York, as a presidential candidate in 2008 and as a major public figure. Taken together, Clinton has frequently shown a willingness to take a stand for tax fairness but has never fleshed out a clear agenda on these issues and has occasionally embraced regressive or gimmicky tax policies.
Record as Senator from New York
In a 2006 report card, Citizens for Tax Justice gave Clinton a “B” overall for her votes on five important pieces of tax legislation passed between 2000-2006. She received four “A” grades for her votes against the Bush cuts and a 2006 proposal to permanently repeal the estate tax. She received an “F” for her vote in favor of the “American Jobs Creation Act of 2004,” legislation that we nicknamed the 2004 Corporate Tax Giveaway Bill.
Clinton was one of 69 Senators who voted for the disastrous American Jobs Creation Act, which included a repatriation holiday for corporations. This holiday turned out to be a debacle. The lavish tax breaks it gave to multinational corporations did not lead to any job creation and gave companies a green light to stash even more of their profits offshore to avoid taxes in hopes of receiving another holiday in the future.
These votes show that when it came to major pieces of tax legislation, Clinton largely and rightly rejected the disastrous Bush tax cut agenda. We noted in 2005 that Clinton was relatively outspoken in her criticism of Bush’s tax policy approach.
One gimmicky tax policy proposal that then Sen. Clinton embraced, along with Sen. John McCain, would have temporarily lifted the gas tax in the summer of 2008. This proposal would have provided families with very little relief (maybe enough to fill half a tank of gas), while at the same time it would have done real damage to the Highway Trust Fund. In other words, it was a shortsighted proposal that would have generated some positive headlines without providing much benefit.
Record as 2008 Presidential Candidate
During the 2008 Democratic primary, Clinton frequently stood up, at least rhetorically, for making our tax system more progressive overall. In one particularly poignant exchange on tax fairness, Clinton noted that it’s unfair for wealthy billionaires like Warren Buffett to pay a low tax rate and that “we’ve got to get back to having those with the most contribute to this country.” Putting a bit of substance behind this rhetoric, Clinton came out strong against the carried-interest loophole and repealing tax subsidies for oil companies during the 2008 campaign.
At the time, Clinton was unwilling to take the bigger step of advocating that investment income be taxed at the same rate as labor income. When pressed during a debate as to whether she would increase capital gains taxes, Clinton said that if she raised it all she would only raise it to 20 percent, well below the rate for ordinary income.
While running for president, Clinton also advocated repealing the Bush tax cuts for those making over $250,000. While this was very much in line with President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party more generally, this policy also meant extending about three-quarters of the Bush tax cuts and adding trillions to the deficit. Even so, sticking to the $250,000 threshold would have been better than the ultimate deal that President Obama cut (and Clinton may have cut as well), which only repealed the Bush tax cuts for those making over $450,000.
In 2014, Clinton ran into some trouble over statements she made about her own tax rate and tax planning efforts.
On tax planning, it was reported that she had engaged in a standard, but notably problematic, form of estate tax avoidance using a pair of qualified personal residence trusts. The good news is that Clinton has long supported policies to strengthen the estate tax, including advocating in 2008 to restore the tax to its 2009 exemption level of $3.5 million.
On her own tax rate, Clinton said that she pays an ordinary tax rate “unlike a lot of people who are truly well off.” Critics jumped on the fact that she implied that she is not well-off, but missed her broader and correct point that she pays a significantly higher tax rate than many other wealthy individuals who receive most of their income through investments.
Looking Forward to 2016
Although her presidential campaign officially begins Sunday, Clinton has been making all kinds of statements across the country touching on policy issues. Although her statement relating to tax issues have come in broad strokes so far, they have hinted toward a progressive approach to tax issues for the campaign. For example, in October, Clinton noted that handing out tax breaks to corporations that “outsource jobs or stash their profits overseas” does not help grow the economy. Hopefully, this and similar statements are indicative of Clinton’s desire to make ensuring that corporations and the wealthy are paying their fair share in taxes an important part of her candidacy going forward.