On their face, ongoing congressional efforts at reforming the tax code have one goal in mind—blow a $1.4 trillion hole in the deficit to finance giveaways to millionaires, billionaires, and corporations. But take a closer look, and a second agenda shows up—manipulate the tax code to fight culture wars.
The plunder for plutocrats is clear. By 2027, the Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that over 37 million households filers with incomes under $200,000 would pay higher taxes. By contrast, almost 62 percent of the tax cuts in that year would go to the top 1 percent.
By contrast, two other higher education tax proposals stand out for the small amounts of money but strong symbolism involved. First, the House and Senate bills propose allowing fetuses to be designated beneficiaries of 529 accounts—savings vehicles that allow families to put away money for college and not pay taxes on growth in the balance. Second, both bills propose a 1.4 percent tax on investment gains at private colleges where endowments are greater than $250,000 a student. In a bill where changes are measured in the tens of billions, that adjustment raises just $200 million a year.
The 529 change is completely meaningless and gratuitous from a policy standpoint. Under current rules, anyone can designate themselves as the beneficiary of a 529 plan, put money away, and change the beneficiary at a later date without penalty. A family wishing to get a head start on college savings could thus open a 529 in their own name, even if the idea of having a child is just a twinkle in their eye, and then designate the child as the beneficiary at any point before he or she actually goes to college.
Opening financial accounts for fetuses may not even be operationally feasible. It’s easy to get a Social Security number for a baby because a doctor has signed their birth certificate to verify they exist. How would parents actually open an account for a fetus? Would banks suddenly start getting faxes of sonograms?
In fact, the 529 change has nothing to do with saving for college. It’s entire purpose is a giveaway to anti-abortion activists. Allowing parents to open college savings accounts for fetuses would define, in federal statute, that a fetus is a person, giving grounds for a Supreme Court challenge to Roe v. Wade. If that gambit succeeds, then women across the country would no longer have the right to choose.
Similarly, the endowment tax is a public relations gift to those complaining about elite colleges and free speech issues. Here, the tell is the amount of money involved, as well as changes to the policy over time. Legislators need every penny in savings they can get to make the math on the massive tax cuts work. Yet not only does the endowment change save just $2.5 billion, Congress already revised the provision to save a half billion less. The original version of the House tax bill imposed the tax on all endowments of $100,000 or more per student, which was later altered to $250,000.
Congress doesn’t care about the money saved from the endowment tax because the whole point is the symbolic appearance of sticking it to elite colleges. Were legislators really serious about going after endowments they would presumably have not adjusted the amount per student thresholds or levied a larger tax. Or the endowment tax would have built on prior efforts to make schools use their wealth to reduce prices or expand access.
Instead, the provision as crafted gives a symbolic attack against the universities with the largest endowments—Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and a few dozen others—the perfect representations of “elite” America, convenient boogeymen for some strains of conservatives. And these schools are an increasingly frequent target. Congress has held hearings trying to gin up concerns that these schools are suppressing free speech. And you don’t have to read too far into conservative media to see allegations that colleges indoctrinate students. The effects of these efforts targeting elite colleges are already showing up in polling data, where Republicans broadly agree that education beyond high school matters, but have an increasingly negative opinion of four-year colleges.
There are obvious ways tax reform efforts could upend major parts of society. For example, a massive expansion in the deficit would certainly be used to drive future spending cuts. But the 529 change shows that the follow-on effects from seemingly minor provisions also matter. Sadly, the the headlong rush to pass a bill makes it hard to fully assess what other worrisome outcomes the bill might cause. One thing’s for sure, though—when the full effects are known, it’s low- and middle-income Americans that will pay the price.