Within hours of the Supreme Court's decision to uphold the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the GOP-Fox News messaging complex had settled on a new line of attack: rebranding President Obama's landmark health care reform as “the largest tax increase in history” and a massive burden on the middle class. This latest spin is so outrageous it hardly passes the laugh test, let alone any serious analysis. Yet Republicans appear determined to repeat this falsehood until, as tends to happen in our postmodern media, it takes on the veneer of truth. Or at least truthiness.
Liberal media and objective journalists alike need to hit back hard on this one. The first issue is that the Supreme Court officially changed the semantics of the individual mandate from a “penalty” to a “tax” (a distinction without meaning), which Republicans are calling “a tax increase on the middle class.” Not true: according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, only about 2 percent of people are expected to be pay this free-rider penalty. It will raise just $27 billion over the next decade, and the vast majority of Americans will be unaffected.
The second claim admits the first claim is bogus, and focuses instead on the two major taxes included in the ACA, which help fund the bill. The first is a 0.9 percent surtax on Medicare taxes for individuals making over $200,000 or $250,000 for joint filers—approximately the richest 5 percent of households. The same income bracket is also responsible for a 3.8 percent surtax on investment income, which includes things like capital gains, dividends and interest.
The ACA also includes several minor changes to the tax code, which have the potential to be more regressive than the high income and investment income taxes. Business Insider describes most of them here; the list includes a cap on Flexible Spending Account contributions (which allows you to shelter some of your income from taxes), a 10 percent tax on indoor tanning services and a 40 percent tax on so-called “Cadillac” health care plans beginning in 2018. But these penalties are more than offset by the tax credits provided by the ACA, which are estimated to help 28.6 million Americans buy insurance by 2014. According to the CBO, these subsidies offset the individual mandate's tax penalty by a factor of ten, even as the overall tax increases and spending cuts reduce the nation's budget deficit.
When you add up all those taxes, as PolitiFact recently did, you find that the government should see increased revenues of $104 billion in 2019, or about 0.49 percent of GDP, thanks to the ACA. That figure will do little to persuade talk radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh, who recently decried Obamacare as “the largest tax increase in the history of the world”—but we don't expect them to. Unfortunately, Limbaugh's histrionics have a way of filtering down to the mainstream; just yesterday, Tennessee congresswoman Marsha Blackburn parroted the “largest tax increase in history” line on CNN, where she was not corrected. A responsible anchor would have responded that the ACA is actually only the tenth largest tax increase since 1950—smaller than the 1993 increase under then-president Bill Clinton, and about a third smaller than the 1982 tax increase signed by Ronald Reagan.
Liberals need to be shouting these numbers from the rooftops.