For Valentine's Day, millions of American couples may get the
promise of a tax break as the House of Representatives votes this
week to ease the so-called "marriage penalty."
Both congressional Republicans and now the Clinton administration
are embracing different versions of the tax cut. This is not to say
partisan bickering between Capitol Hill and the White House has
suddenly come to an end.
Rather, both sides realize the popular cut is simply good
politics, akin to tossing the married public a chocolate kiss - a
relatively small and symbolic gesture that everyone nevertheless
"Who could be opposed to marriage?" says Christopher Bergin,
editor of Tax Notes, a weekly professional journal based in
Especially in an election year, few Republicans or Democrats have
the heart to speak out against the targeted relief.
"It's very hard to make a persuasive defense of the marriage
penalty," says Robert McIntyre, director of Citizens for Tax Justice
Yet despite its emotional punch, experts say the proposed
tinkering with the marriage penalty and other bite-size tax breaks
demonstrates a "lowest common denominator" approach to tax policy
prevailing in Washington, marked by small initiatives and no
"It's not a huge, bold, reforming plan. It's something they think
they can agree on," says Claire Hintz, senior economist at the Tax
Foundation, a tax-policy research organization here.
Moreover, the marriage penalty itself is not the big, clear-cut
wrong it's built up to be, say tax experts from across the
For some, a marriage bonus
Indeed, almost as many couples enjoy a "marriage bonus." Nor is
fixing the penalty as simple as many in Washington imply. Instead,
it is just one of the trade-offs in a tax system designed to balance
the competing goals of progressivity, equal taxation for equal
incomes, and fairness to married and single people.
Both the congressional GOP and White House plans unveiled in
recent weeks, for example, clearly favor married couples at the
expense of singles.
Historically, this marks another pendulum swing in a tax system
that in recent decades has fluctuated between financially benefiting
one of the two groups.
Today, couples endure a marriage penalty if they owe more income
tax filing a joint return than if they were single and filed
separately. About 25 million American couples, nearly half of those
filing joint returns, incurred a marriage penalty last year,
according to a Treasury Department report. The average penalty was
$1,141. Two-earner couples, especially those where the spouses make
similar incomes, are more likely to face penalties.
"It is terribly unfair that married couples pay higher taxes just
because they're married," said House Ways and Means Committee
Chairman Bill Archer (R) of Texas. "There is absolutely no excuse
why we can't [fix the marriage tax] ... for millions of married
couples right now," he said.
But what politicians such as Representative Archer often do not
point out is that an almost equal number of couples filing jointly,
21 million, enjoyed a marriage bonus last year, paying less than
they would have if single. …