What a ‘Biden-Warren’ policy agenda could look like

It’d be aimed at three critical voting blocs — the elderly, the young and working parents

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., left, could loom large in next year's policy direction if Democrats sweep in November. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., left, could loom large in next year's policy direction if Democrats sweep in November. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 27, 2020 at 12:29pm

ANALYSIS — Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has proposed about $8 trillion in new spending over a decade, with tax increases to cover only around half the cost, based on various independent analyses and campaign materials. That might limit Democrats’ bandwidth to implement Biden’s agenda even if his party sweeps in November, as current polling and political betting markets indicate. A likely thin Senate Democratic majority would mean even less margin for error.

The former vice president’s climate and health care plans are his most costly, and probably the most contentious; it’s not certain even an all-Democratic Washington would take on those fights right out of the gate. But Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Biden’s onetime-rival-turned-influential-surrogate, laid out an alternative playbook for the nominee and his prospective vice president during last week’s Democratic convention.

“Vice President Biden and Kamala Harris — they want to see us expand Social Security, they want to see us cancel a big chunk of student loan debt, they want to see us expand access to child care,” Warren said on NBC’s “Today Show” last Monday.

Later that night at a watch party for progressives, Warren sounded the refrain again: “Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will increase Social Security benefits, cancel student loan debt and expand access to affordable, safe and high-quality child care.”

It’s a policy trifecta that checks important political boxes: The elderly, who typically vote in droves; younger voters, whom Biden needs to turn out; and parents facing tough work-life balance challenges, particularly with COVID-19.

It’ll be easier said than done.

Below is a snapshot of Biden’s plans for Social Security, student debt and child care, and the landmines that could trip them up.

Social Security

Biden would increase Social Security benefits through more generous annual inflation adjustments and special considerations for the poorest and oldest retirees, as well as surviving spouses.

He’d set a minimum benefit equal to 125 percent of the poverty level for those with 30 years’ work experience; that would increase monthly benefits for affected beneficiaries by nearly 50 percent over the 2019 minimum of $886.40, for example, and the minimums would grow faster annually. Longer-lived retirees would receive a 5 percent benefit “bump up” in their 20th year of eligibility.

Currently, a widow or widower might see their benefits cut in half when their spouse dies if they earned similar amounts during their careers. Under Biden’s plan, survivors could get benefits equal to 75 percent of the combined total if their spouse had lived. According to the Congressional Budget Office, women would make up 90 percent of the beneficiaries of this option, gaining on average 20 percent more in Social Security benefits.

Hurdles

Biden would pay for the added benefits — as well as extending the long-term solvency of the Social Security Trust Fund, which may only be able to pay full benefits for another decade or so — by applying the 12.4 percent Social Security payroll tax to income above $400,000 annually.

Currently, the tax is assessed on the first $137,700, which rises annually with inflation. The tax is spread evenly among workers and employers, but economists say workers bear the full burden because employers pay less to offset the tax.

It’s unclear what the ultimate impact on Social Security finances would be, even with such a big influx of cash — nearly $1 trillion in the first decade alone, according to the Tax Policy Center.

The CBO last year found that a House Democratic bill with more generous benefits, plus an increased payroll tax hitting those up to the current taxable maximum as well as above $400,000, would only extend the life of the trust fund by a few years. Social Security actuaries disagreed, but the uncertainty helped keep House Ways and Means Democrats from moving forward with the plan.

Social Security changes can’t be done under the budget reconciliation process, which provides for expedited floor procedures, so Democrats would likely need to ditch the filibuster to make it happen, with Republicans unlikely to vote for it. And with no imminent threat to the program’s finances until a potential second Biden term — or whomever is serving at that point — it’s unclear whether Social Security will be a top 2021 agenda item for lawmakers.

Student loans

Biden would start by canceling $10,000 in student debt for all borrowers. He’d also wipe out tuition-related debt from public colleges and universities, as well as private Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority-Serving Institutions, for those earning up to $125,000 annually. Debt relief would be phased out for those making more than that.

He’d eliminate federal student loan repayments for individuals earning $25,000 or less, and above that threshold would cap payments at 5 percent of income. Remaining debt would be forgiven after 20 years, and that forgiven debt wouldn’t be taxed. Under current law borrowers pay 10 percent of their income in excess of 150 percent of poverty annually for 20 years, but debt forgiveness is then taxed, often at whopping amounts.

Biden would also expand a program that forgives student debt after 10 years for those who take jobs in government or with nonprofits, providing $10,000 of debt relief for every year of service, capped at five years.

Hurdles

To help pay for the plans, which could cost in the ballpark of $500 billion, based on estimates from Moody’s and the American Enterprise Institute, Biden wants to revive an Obama-era proposal to cap the value of itemized deductions at 28 percent for households earning more than $400,000. That’s estimated to raise some $300 billion.

The Obama administration pitched the cap every year with no luck, as charities, state and local governments and the housing industry pushed back. The cap wouldn’t bite as much with state and local tax deductions currently limited to $10,000 under the 2017 tax overhaul. But that limit comes off in 2026, and an all-Democratic Congress might seek immediate repeal. And charities, already chafing under the 2017 law’s higher standard deduction, would cry foul.

Biden’s plan to pay for the remainder by restoring a cap on business loss deductions in excess of $250,000, or $500,000 for married couples — raising as much as $250 billion — probably has a better chance. Included in the 2017 law as an offset, the cap was removed for 2018 through 2020 in the March coronavirus relief package. House Democrats have already passed legislation that would restore the cap permanently.

Putting the limit back would mean individuals with income from partnerships, S corporations and other “pass-through” structures can’t use excess business losses to offset other income, such as investment gains. That would affect mainly well-off households, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation, with 82 percent of the March tax break going to those earning more than $1 million.

Biden’s campaign also said to help offset the broader cost of his higher education proposals, such as free two-year community college tuition, he’d subject inherited assets to immediate capital gains tax at the deceased’s original purchase price, rather than deferred tax only on price appreciation since death. But the campaign also seems to want to use revenues from that plan — which has its own political challenges — to offset his health insurance expansion.

Separately, Biden would make it easier to discharge private student debt in bankruptcy. That plan will face a wall of opposition from banks and other student lenders. Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., has tried to pass similar legislation for a decade, to no avail.

Child care

Biden would make prekindergarten free for all three- and four-year-olds through a mix of funding for public schools, daycare centers and Head Start.

He’d expand existing child and dependent care tax credits to 50 percent for up to $8,000 in costs per child up to age 13, capped at $16,000; the maximum credit would be available to families earning up to $125,000, phasing out once income hits $400,000. The credit would also be refundable, making it accessible to lower-income families with little or no income tax liability.

Alternatively parents with kids up to age 5 could choose an option based on legislation from Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions ranking member Patty Murray, D-Wash., and House Education and Labor Chairman Robert C. Scott, D-Va.

Their legislation would limit child care expenses to 7 percent of income for households earning up to one-and-a-half times their state’s median income, with the government subsidizing the rest. That percentage would decline for lower-income households, with fully subsidized care starting at 75 percent of state median income. Annual child care savings could be in the $20,000 range for a lower-income family with two young children, according to the left-leaning Center for American Progress.

Biden would provide bonus payments to providers to offer child care during early mornings, nights and weekends; expand Child Care and Development Block Grants to states for low-income families, including for summer camp programs, and fund “wraparound” services at community colleges to provide care for students’ children.

He’d also create a new 50 percent tax credit for the first $1 million in construction costs businesses incur to build child care facilities at their offices.

Finally, Biden would require that caregivers and early childhood educators hired with federal funds receive the same pay as elementary school teachers with similar qualifications. They’d also receive 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave.

Hurdles

Biden’s campaign estimates his child care proposals would cost $325 billion over a decade, though the right-leaning American Action Forum says that figure is too low. Biden lumps together child and elder care proposals, which would cost another $450 billion, and says the combined cost can be offset by revoking tax breaks for real estate investors and other tax compliance measures aimed at those earning more than $400,000.

Real estate tax increases in Biden’s plan identified by the Tax Policy Center would raise $294 billion over a decade, or nearly the amount needed under Biden’s child care estimate. The largest piece would repeal investors’ ability to defer capital gains tax when sale proceeds are used to purchase similar properties — like selling one apartment building to buy another — known as “like-kind exchanges.” Other provisions would repeal the ability of passive real estate investors to deduct up to $25,000 in rental losses, as well as accelerated depreciation of rental housing.

Attempts to eliminate these breaks can expect fierce lobbying from real estate interests. They’ve fended off several attempts over the last decade to repeal like-kind exchanges, for instance, burying the proposal under industry-funded studies pointing to less investment, higher rents, lower property prices and a smaller overall economy.

Real estate interests have contributed almost $209 million to candidates, committees and outside groups this cycle, ranking fourth among all industries, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The National Association of Realtors, with members in every district and state, ranked third among over 5,500 organizations in lobbying expenditures last year, according to the Center.

Biden’s got a large menu of other tax increases that might be more popular, namely rolling back individual and corporate tax cuts in the 2017 tax overhaul — but they’re all claimed for his other plans already. 

Chris Marquette contributed to this report.