Here are the details of the agreement on the Bush tax cuts:
1) The Bush tax cuts get extended for two years -- with one ugly surprise: For the next two years, estates up to $5,000,000 will be protected from the estate tax, and the tax rate for the few estates that are taxed will be 35 percent. ... The difference in expected revenue between the 2009 levels and the compromise levels is $10 billion or so.
2) The refundable tax credits are extended: The Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit and the American Opportunity Tax Credit were all pumped up in the stimulus, but set to expire this year. All of them will be extended. Price tag? $40 billion or so.
3) Unemployment insurance gets extended for 13 months: ... In perhaps the most important part of the deal, there's going to be a 13-month extension at a cost of $56 billion.
4) A 2 percent cut in the payroll taxes paid by employees: This is perhaps the most unexpected part of the compromise. Rather than extending the administration's Making Work Pay tax credit for two years, which would've been worth about $60 billion a year, they've agreed to a one-year cut in the payroll taxes paid by employees, which'll raise $120 billion in 2011.
5) Business expensing: Remember back in September, when the White House announced a proposal to give businesses two years in which they could deduct 100 percent of the cost of new investments? That's in the deal, too. The cost of this is a bit complicated -- it's $30 billion over 10 years, but it works by offering huge tax cuts in the next two years and then paying that back over the next eight.
On net, the package probably adds around $200 billion in new stimulus for the economy, maybe a bit more. Notice, however, that it is entirely tax cuts.
The estate tax and the extension of high end tax cuts are causing the most heated reactions, and the payroll tax cut is generally being applauded. But I see the payroll tax reduction as potentially troublesome as well.
Though the revenue the Social Security system loses due to the tax cut will be backfilled from general revenues, the worry is that the tax cut will not expire as scheduled -- temporary tax cuts have a way of turning permanent. That's especially true in this case since labor markets are very unlikely to recover within the next year and it will be easy to argue against the scheduled "tax increase" for workers.
In fact, it will never be a good time to increase taxes on workers and if the tax cut is extended once, as it's likely to be, it will be hard to ever increase it back to where it was. That endangers Social Security funding -- relying on general revenue transfers sets the system up for cuts down the road -- and for that reason I would have preferred that this be enacted in a way that produces the same outcome, but has different political optics. That is, leave the payroll tax at 6% on the books and keep sending the money to Social Security, and fund a 2% tax "rebate" out of general revenues. The rebate would come, technically, as a payment from general revenues rather than through a cut in the payroll tax, but in the end the effect would be identical. But the technicality is important since it preserves the existing funding mechanism for Social Security even if the taxes are permanently extended.