House Passes Marriage Tax Relief

WASHINGTON—Jim Crawford of Bryantown, Md., drove to the nation's capital to petition Congress to alleviate a discrepancy in the tax code that penalizes married couples.

Crawford said that he noticed the marriage penalty when comparing his family's tax bite with a similar couple of the same income bracket.

“They were divorced and they were paying $1,000 less than us,” Crawford told the Register. “It seems that every April 15 we get fined $1,000 for being married and it's just not right.”

The marriage penalty refers to the additional taxes paid by many two-income, married couples. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that 25 million families pay an average of $1,400 in taxes because of the marriage tax penalty.

Crawford said it's unlikely that politicians intentionally passed laws to penalize marriage, but now that this situation has caught their attention, they should act as quickly as possible to rectify the situation.

“It got this way by accident,” he said, “but it's easy to rectify.”

Crawford's plea didn't go unanswered.

In a bipartisan vote Feb. 10, the U.S. House voted 268-158 to end the marriage penalty, timed just days before St. Valentine's Day. Although 48 Democrats joined all Republicans in favor of the tax change, the vote fell short of a vetoproof majority.

“Today a majority of the House of Representatives said no to the unfair marriage tax penalty, and said yes to the 25 million married couples who suffer this $1,400 tax penalty just because they are married,” said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Jerry Weller, R-Ill.

President Clinton has threatened to veto the bill, but stressed that the marriage penalty must be corrected. At a Capitol Hill appearance he said, “We know we should do this.” Clinton's proposed a $45 billion tax plan to alleviate the part of the penalty that focuses on lower- and middle-class families. The House was bolder, proposing a $182 billion plan to almost completely eliminate the penalty for all married couples regardless of income.

House Speaker Denny Hastert commended the bill. “We need a tax code that recognizes that working families need help,” the Illinois Republican said. “They don't need the federal government picking their pocket and taking money out of their account just because they're married.”

The legislation would:

—increase the standard deduction for married couples filing jointly by $1,450, up to $8,800 beginning in 2001;

—double the standard deduction for married couples to twice that of single filers by 2001;

—expand the lowest tax bracket (15%) to $51,500 from $43,050 for married couples.

—increase the Earned Income Tax Credit by $2,000 to include those who make $32,580 per year.

Questioning the Cost

Democrats worried that the bill would threaten the strong economy and the newfound surpluses.

Michigan Democrat Sander Levin said, “The Republican proposal falls far outside this common sense budget framework. It would drain down surpluses that may be needed for Social Security and Medicare.”

But citizen Crawford from Maryland insists that the marriage penalty tax ought to be eliminated on principle even if it left less money in the Treasury.

“I don't care how much the estimates are,” said Crawford. “The fact is this is a gross injustice. It makes my blood curdle.”

Crawford said his daughter asked him about the penalty before she got married: “She asked me, ‘But does that mean we will pay more this year because we're getting married?’ and I said, 'Yes, Pam, you will pay more this year because you checked the box marked ‘Married.’”

The Next Step

The bill now goes to the Senate where support is strong from both sides of the aisle.

Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., told reporters, “There is a real good possibility we'll pass some form of marriage penalty tax relief this year.”

Senate Finance Committee Chairman William Roth, R-Del., said the issue was “a top priority” for his panel. “We look forward to righting this wrong.”

The Senate, known for long deliberation, promises swift action on the bill. Republicans hope to bring the legislation to the floor for a vote by March 10.

This is the fourth time since 1997 that Rep. Weller has tried to end the marriage penalty in the tax code.

During the House debate, Weller recited the number of married couples that reside in the districts of individual Democrats when they came to the floor to oppose the bill.

“You may be able to explain your opposition to them, but I sure can't,” Weller said each time.