- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 25, 2000

Last week, Americans filed their tax returns. For many married couples, tax day was a reminder that Uncle Sam was the uninvited guest at their wedding, bearing the gift of a higher tax bill. Millions of couples owe more in taxes simply because they are married. These couples were hit with the so called "marriage penalty tax."

Republicans in the U.S. Senate attempted to debate and pass a bill to end the unfair marriage penalty tax. Just before tax day, regrettably, the Democrats in the Senate stopped this effort by a filibuster.

This week, there is another chance to end this filibuster. Another vote is scheduled to break the impasse. The debate should be brought to a close. It is time to sweep away any partisanship surrounding this issue. This is not so much a tax cut as it is a tax correction.

The marriage tax penalty is a consequence of our changing work force. Many families now have two parents working. In the last 30 years the number of families with two working spouses has increased 50 percent. Also, the income levels of husbands and wives have become more equal. The combination is hitting married couples in the tax code. Of course, the irony is that many are working simply to pay the taxes. The average family has approximately 38 percent of its income taken for taxes. The second income often just pays the tax bill.

The number of affected couples is not small. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) believes 21 million married couples are affected by this tax, and estimates that the average penalty is $1,400. In fact, in a report prepared for the Treasury Department, it is believed that 48 percent of couples will pay a marriage penalty in 1999.

The source of the problem in the tax code is that married couples, with two incomes, filing as single individuals could actually pay less in taxes. For example, the standard deduction is $4,400 for single individuals, but $7,350 for a married couple. Two individuals filing as singles could deduct $8,800 from their income before taxes. The married couple, on the other hand, would be limited to the lower standard deduction, meaning an extra $1,450 is subject to taxes.

The tax brackets also do not anticipate the marriage penalty. The brackets for married couples are not double what they are for single taxpayers. The 15 percent bracket for married couples ends at $43,850. By not having it twice the size of the 15 percent bracket that singles pay, married couples pay taxes in the higher bracket on $8,650 of income.

Correcting the problem is not complex. The legislation we are debating will increase the standard deduction for married couples so it is double that of single taxpayers. Thus, the standard deduction would increase from $7,350 to $8,800 in 2001. The 15 percent and 28 percent tax brackets would also be widened over time so they become twice the size of the bracket for single taxpayers. This would eliminate the penalty for the vast majority of couples.

For the 70 percent of taxpayers who take the standard deduction, that penalty would end next year.

Now is the time to end this inequity for married couples. The House has passed a similar bill. In fact, President Clinton has said he wants Congress to send him marriage penalty legislation, yet members of his own party are trying to attach extraneous measures.

Some have suggested that the cost of ending this unfair tax is too expensive. They are wrong. First, cost should not be an object if our tax system is in conflict with our values, that marriage and stable families are an important foundation of our society. Second, the cost over the next five years is only half that of the $150 billion reserved for tax cuts in the congressional budget plan.

We are willing to debate the bill and vote on Democrat alternatives. But endless debate and votes on the issue not related to the marriage penalty tax raises the question: Are the Democrats serious about tax relief for hard-working American families?

Kay Bailey Hutchison is a Republican member of the U.S. Senate from Texas.

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