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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

Do you want to see how legislation that was supposed to be a bailout for our economy ended up committing almost as much taxpayer money to help a relative handful of the non-needy as it spent to help tens of millions of people in need? Then let's step back and revisit parts of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act and look at some of the numbers involved.

The best-known feature of the CARES Act, as it's known, is the cash grant of up to $1,200 per adult and $500 per child for households whose income was less than $99,000 for single taxpayers and $198,000 for couples. These grants are nontaxable, which makes them even more valuable. Some 159 million stimulus payments have gone out, according to the IRS.


The income limits suggested that the plan benefits the people most in need, those most likely to spend their stimulus payments and thus help the economy. The rhetoric conveyed the same: “The CARES Act Provides Assistance to Workers And Their Families" is how the Treasury's website puts it. There were no grants to more-fortunate people, who for the most part aren't in financial distress and are less likely than the less-fortunate to spend any money that Uncle Sam sent them.

But when I began looking at details of the legislation, I realized that several of its provisions quietly provided benefits that were worth much more than $1,200 to some upper-middle-class people who didn't qualify for stimulus payments. Some other provisions provided vastly bigger benefits to the rich, to corporations and to a relative handful of ultra-rich folks.

So let me show you five provisions of the legislation that benefited the upper middle class (including yours truly); the families of Donald Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner; high-income people who make large charitable donations; and Boeing and other corporations that are showing losses; as well as indirectly benefited people who have substantial investments in U.S. stocks.

These five provisions that help the well-heeled will cost the Treasury — which is to say, U.S. taxpayers — an estimated $257.95 billion for the 2020 calendar year. That's nearly as much as the estimated $292.37 billion price tag for the stimulus grants to regular folks. The numbers are from Congress' Joint Committee on Taxation, the official scorekeeper of the financial impact that legislation has on the Treasury. (I used those figures to calculate the spending for the 2020 calendar year rather than for 10 federal fiscal years because I'm interested in today's impact, not the projected long-term impact.)

I'm writing this now, more than two months after the CARES Act took effect, as a cautionary tale. That's because with massive unemployment upon us and the fall elections drawing near, there's a temptation for Congress and Trump to produce legislation that will help needy people a bit but help the non-needy a lot more by doing things like reducing capital gains taxes.

Now, let me take you through the provisions, only one of which — the break for the Trumps, the Kushners, and their ilk — has attracted meaningful public attention.

Eliminating Required Distributions From Retirement Accounts: $11.72 billion

People ages 72 and up who have IRAs or 401(k)s or other “defined contribution" retirement accounts must take federally taxable required minimum distributions from them every year. (Some states also tax these distributions.) People who inherit such accounts are also required to take annual distributions, regardless of their age.

The required distribution amount is based on year-end age and account balances. For example, if you were 75 at year-end — as I was — your RMD for this year is 4.37% of your year-end 2019 retirement account balances. If you were 76, it's 4.55%.

But this year, thanks to the CARES Act, I don't have to take any retirement distributions at all.

Not having to take distributions matters a lot to some people. For instance, if I took my full RMD this year, which I don't plan to do, it would be one of my larger income sources. And I would have to pay federal and state income tax on it, regardless of whether I spent the money or saved it.

I'd like to tell you how many people the JCT expects to benefit from this year's RMD waiver; how much their distributions would have totaled and what the tax rate on them would have been; and how many people the JCT expects to take distributions this year even though they're not required to take them. Alas, the JCT doesn't disclose this information and declined to share it with me.

But even though I don't have specific numbers, it's clear that most of the benefit from this year's RMD waiver goes to well-off people. Why? Because people who need retirement account money to live on are going to take distributions, and people who don't need the money are unlikely to take distributions.

The reason for the no-RMD provision is that the stock market was sinking rapidly in March, when the CARES Act was being discussed. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index, for example, fell by 30.8 percent from the end of 2019 through its low for 2020 (at least so far) on March 23, a few days before Trump signed the CARES Act legislation. Congress didn't want to penalize retirees by forcing them to sell stock during a market crash.

So if someone with a 4.37% required distribution had money in an S&P 500 index fund, our investor would have had to withdraw 6.32% of the fund's balance (4.37 divided by 69.2) rather than 4.37 percent of it if the investor took the distribution on March 23. That would have hurt our investor's future financial security.

If the market fell by 50 percent through year-end, which in the scary days of March seemed to be a distinct possibility and could still happen, our theoretical investor would have to cash out 8.74 percent of the account if RMDs were still required.

There were other ways to deal with this problem, such as letting people take a pass on their first $15,000 of RMDs, rather than giving a big break to the likes of me and a far bigger break to people with far larger retirement accounts than mine. But Congress and Trump didn't do that.

Charitable Deductions: $4.83 billion

Normally, people who itemize deductions on their federal tax return can deduct no more than 60% of their adjusted gross income for charitable contributions. But for this year, the limit is 100 percent of AGI.

The Tax Policy Center, whose research helped inform this article, estimates that about two-thirds of the people who donated more than 60 percent of their AGI in past years had incomes of less than $100,000. But although such people accounted for the bulk of those making such large contributions relative to their income, the TPC says, “Most of the value of the deduction goes to just a small number of the very wealthy."

The theory behind raising the limit this year is that it will encourage people to make larger donations than they otherwise would. But I can't imagine how this provision — like the provision allowing people who take the standard deduction to subtract $300 from their taxable income for charitable contributions — is going to significantly increase donations to charities trying to help people cope with COVID-19.

The $4.83 billion JCT number for this provision's cost to the Treasury includes tax savings for both individuals and corporations.

Pass-Through Entities: $140.61 billion

Now, we come to the huge item that benefits the likes of Trump and Kushner, their families, other wealthy real estate types, hedge fund investors and all sorts of ultra-high-income people, who derive large amounts of money from partnerships, LLCs and other so-called pass-through entities.

As you'll see in a bit, this big-time break provides a big-time benefit to a relative handful of people.

Now that it's a fait accompli, this provision is belatedly getting a lot of media attention. So I'll spare you most of the details about how it allows the ultra-wealthy to use paper losses to offset income that was taxed in previous years, when tax rates were higher than they are now, and get refunds based on those old, higher rates.

Suffice it to say that the JCT estimates that about 82% of these benefits — let's call it $115 billion — will go to about 43,000 taxpayers with $1 million or more in annual income. That's an average of about $2.68 million each.

The new proposed stimulus package passed by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives — the HEROES (for Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions) Act — would repeal this provision. However, its prospects for passage in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has called the HEROES Act a “totally unserious effort," seem remote. He and other Senate Republicans insisted on making the break for pass-through entities part of the CARES legislation. It's hard to imagine them allowing any new bailout legislation to reverse that benefit. I'm sure Democrats realized this but wanted to go on record as opposing the pass-through break.

The HEROES Act would also repeal the $10,000 limit on deductions for state and local income and real estate taxes, which Republicans included in the 2017 tax cut legislation to reduce the cost to the Treasury of the big cuts they gave to corporations and ultra-high-income people. (Not coincidentally, the cap hurt people in high-income, high-tax blue states.) It's hard to imagine this provision becoming law, either.

Now, let's look at two corporate tax breaks inserted in the CARES Act. One lets corporations increase their interest deductions; the second lets them use tax losses from 2018, 2019 and this year to get immediate, substantial refunds rather than having to wait until they show future profits that offset those losses.

The people who benefit most from these corporate tax breaks, of course, are the corporations' owners. (Workers, in theory, benefit to some extent, as well.)

By increasing companies' cash flows and reported earnings, these breaks help the share prices of corporations whose stock is publicly traded and help increase the value of privately held corporations.

Stock ownership by individuals is concentrated among higher-income people.

Corporate Interest Deductions: $12.09 billion

One of the reforms of the 2017 tax act was reducing the amount of interest that corporations could deduct on their federal tax returns. The idea was to reduce the attractiveness of debt, which is subsidized by taxpayers and carries big risks to corporate owners as well as employees. (For examples, see the recent bankruptcies of Neiman Marcus and J. Crew, which were burdened with debt, part of it incurred to pay fees and distributions to the buyout firms that had taken them over.)

The CARES Act undid part of the 2017 act by increasing the deductible level to 50% of earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization from the previous 30 percent.

Like some of the other provisions that we've looked at, this doesn't involve a lot of money relative to the numbers that we're dealing with. But it's symbolic. And the people benefiting the most from it because they have major investments in stocks aren't likely to be worrying about how to pay for food or avoid losing their homes.

Corporate Loss Treatment: $88.70 billion

This does the same kind of thing for corporations that the pass-through provision we discussed earlier does for LLCs and partnerships and such. But it hasn't attracted anything like the same attention that the pass-through giveaway has gotten because it doesn't involve names like Trump and Kushner.

Until now, corporations that had losses last year and this year could carry them forward to offset taxes for future years, but they couldn't apply them to get refunds of taxes paid in previous years.

Corporations can now apply losses from this year, last year and 2018 to income from the previous five years. That's going to be a big deal for companies — can you say Boeing? — that are likely to show losses.

What's more, these companies can get refunds of up to 35 percent of the losses they carry back to 2017 and earlier years, even though the corporate tax rate is now only 21%. The rationale is that because the corporate tax rate was 35 percent before 2018, companies should be able to get refunds today based on what they paid then, not on what they'd be paying now.

So this pays off on multiple levels: The beneficiaries not only benefit today from current and recent losses rather than having to wait until they have profits in the future, but they get a much bigger bang for the buck.

Our country is suffering through major, major problems. We've got more than 100,000 people dead from COVID-19, unemployment levels not seen since the Great Depression, and protests and civil unrest in cities and towns across the country. We're appropriately adding trillions of dollars to our national debt to try to forestall an economic meltdown. Let's just hope that further federal aid goes to those who really need it. And doesn't go to those who don't.

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Former President Donald Trump, left, and former White House counsel Pat Cipollone

On Wednesday evening the House Select Committee investigating the Trump coup plot issued a subpoena to former White House counsel Pat Cipollone, following blockbuster testimony from former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson, who said the lawyer had warned of potential criminal activity by former President Donald Trump and his aides.

The committee summons to Cipollone followed long negotiations over his possible appearance and increasing pressure on him to come forward as Hutchinson did. Committee members expect the former counsel’s testimony to advance their investigation, owing to his knowledge of the former president's actions before, during and after the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

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Mark Meadows

Donald Trump’s White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows wanted a presidential pardon. He had facilitated key stages of Trump’s attempted 2020 coup, linking the insurrectionists to the highest reaches of the White House and Congress.

But ultimately, Meadows failed to deliver what Trump most wanted, which was convincing others in government to overturn the 2020 election. And then his subordinates, White House security staff, thwarted Trump’s plan to march with a mob into the Capitol.

Meadows’ role has become clearer with each January 6 hearing. Earlier hearings traced how his attempted Justice Department takeover failed. The fake Electoral College slates that Meadows had pushed were not accepted by Congress. The calls by Trump to state officials that he had orchestrated to “find votes” did not work. Nor could Meadows convince Vice-President Mike Pence to ignore the official Electoral College results and count pro-Trump forgeries.

And as January 6 approached and the insurrection began, new and riveting details emerged about Meadow’s pivotal role at the eye of this storm, according to testimony on Tuesday by his top White House aide, Cassidy Hutchinson.

Meadows had been repeatedly told that threats of violence were real. Yet he repeatedly ignored calls from the Secret Service, Capitol police, White House lawyers and military chiefs to protect the Capitol, Hutchinson told the committee under oath. And then Meadows, or, at least White House staff under him, failed Trump a final time – although in a surprising way.

After Trump told supporters at a January 6 rally that he would walk with them to the Capitol, Meadows’ staff, which oversaw Trump’s transportation, refused to drive him there. Trump was furious. He grabbed at the limousine’s steering wheel. He assaulted the Secret Service deputy, who was in the car, and had told Trump that it was not safe to go, Hutchinson testified.

“He said, ‘I’m the f-ing president. Take me up to the Capitol now,’” she said, describing what was told to her a short while later by those in the limousine. And Trump blamed Meadows.

“Later in the day, it had been relayed to me via Mark that the president wasn’t happy that Bobby [Engel, the driver] didn’t pull it off for him, and that Mark didn’t work hard enough to get the movement on the books [Trump’s schedule].”

Hutchinson’s testimony was the latest revelations to emerge from hearings that have traced in great detail how Trump and his allies plotted and intended to overturn the election. Her eye-witness account provided an unprecedented view of a raging president.

Hutchinson’s testimony was compared to John Dean, the star witness of the Watergate hearings a half-century ago that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon for his aides’ efforts to spy on and smear Democrats during the 1972 presidential campaign.

“She IS the John Dean of the hearings,” tweeted the Brooking Institution’s Norman Eisen, who has written legal analyses on prosecuting Trump. “Trump fighting with his security, throwing plates at the wall, but above all the WH knowing that violence was coming on 1/6. The plates & the fighting are not crimes, but they will color the prosecution devastatingly.”

Meadows’ presence has hovered over the coup plot and insurrection. Though he has refused to testify before the January 6 committee, his pivotal role increasingly has come into view.

Under oath, Hutchinson described links between Meadows and communication channels to the armed mob that had assembled. She was backstage at the Trump’s midday January 6 rally and described Trump’s anger that the crowd was not big enough. The Secret Service told him that many people were armed and did not want to go through security and give up their weapons.

Trump, she recounted, said “something to the effect of, ‘I don’t f-ing care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me. Take the mags [metal detectors] away. Let the people in. They can march to the Capitol from here.

As the day progressed and the Capitol was breached, Hutchison described the scene at the White House from her cubicle outside the Oval Office. She repeatedly went into Meadows’ office, where he had isolated himself. When Secret Service officials urged her to get Meadows to urge Trump to tell his supporters to stand down and leave, he sat listless.

“He [Meadows] needs to snap out of it,” she said that she told others who pressed her to get Meadows to act. Later, she heard Meadows repeatedly tell other White House officials that Trump “doesn’t think they [insurrectionists] are doing anything wrong.” Trump said Pence deserved to be hung as a traitor, she said.

Immediately after January 6, Hutchinson said that Trump’s cabinet discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to remove a sitting president but did not do so. She also said that Meadows sought a pardon for his January 6-related actions.

Today, Meadows is championing many of the same election falsehoods that he pushed for Trump as a senior partner at the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI), a right-wing think tank whose 2021 annual report boasts of “changing the way conservatives fight.”

His colleagues include Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who pushed for Trump to use every means to overturn the election and leads CPI’s “election integrity network,” and other Republicans who have been attacking elections as illegitimate where their candidates lose.

Hutchinson’s testimony may impede Meadows’ future political role, as it exposes him to possible criminal prosecution. But the election-denying movement that he nurtured has not gone away. CPI said it is targeting elections in national battleground states for 2022’s midterms, including Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

Trump did not give Meadows a pardon. But in July 2021, Trump’s “Save America” PAC gave CPI $1 million.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, The American Prospect, and many others.

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