Democratic control of the U.S. Senate will have a multitude of impacts on legislative issues critical to agents and brokers and small businesses including taxes, health care, and COVID-19 relief.
In a result that will shake up Washington, D.C., Democrats look to have defeated both incumbent Republican Georgia Senators to secure control of the U.S. Senate, giving President-elect Joe Biden a united government.
Democratic control of the Senate will also have a multitude of impacts on legislative issues critical to agents and brokers and small businesses including taxes, health care, and COVID-19 relief.
The victories of Senators-elect Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock create a 50-50 split in the Senate with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris as the tiebreaker, giving Democrats the majority for the first time since 2015. A Senate majority for Democrats also means new leaders, committee chairs, and priorities.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York) will become Senate Majority Leader with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) serving as Majority Whip. Perhaps most important for Big “I" members is Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) will become the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, which has jurisdiction over important insurance issues. Other notable committee chairs in the Democratic Senate will include Senate Committee on Finance Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Senate Committee on the Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont).
A Democratic administration, House, and Senate also make it much more likely that President-elect Joe Biden will be able to appoint the cabinet he wants. Several nominees, including Xavier Becerra for Secretary of Health and Human Services and Neera Tanden for Director of the Office of Management and Budget, have a better likelihood of being confirmed. However, Tanden, who must pass through the Senate Committee on the Budget, could still face some pushback.
Democratic Senate control allows the party to use two obscure, but highly effective, tools to move their priorities through the chamber. First, the Congressional Review Act is an expedited oversight tool that allows Congress to overturn rules issued by federal agencies. Democrats in Congress will likely use this tool to reverse many of President Trump's deregulatory actions on climate, banking and the environment.
The second tool is budget reconciliation, which allows the majority party to use one spending or revenue bill per year to expedite consideration of certain tax, budget and spending related legislation. Additionally, budget reconciliation measures in the Senate require simple majority votes and not the normal 60 vote threshold. Senate Democrats will be able to use the budget reconciliation process on issues of significant importance to Big “I" members like taxes and health care.
While only having 50 votes in the Senate may stop some of the most progressive policies, President-elect Biden will certainly be able to push forward with more of his agenda than he would have had Republicans maintained control of the Senate. In the near term, this makes another COVID-19 relief package, including $2,000 checks to individuals more likely, though not guaranteed.
In the longer term, President-elect Biden's tax plan will now be in play for serious consideration. Although he may not be able to get all of it through the Senate, the odds of him repealing pieces of the Trump tax law and passing at least parts of his proposed plan, either through budget reconciliation or through negotiated packages, have dramatically increased.
President-elect Biden's tax plans include significant tax increases on both the individual side and the corporate side and would raise nearly $3.5 trillion in revenue over 10 years, according to the Tax Foundation.
For those filing as individuals, Biden takes aim at income over $400,000. His plan would raise the top tax rate from 37% to 39.6%. Additionally, the plan would also tax long-term capital gains and qualified dividends at the ordinary income tax rate of 39.6% on income above $1 million. It also caps the tax benefit of itemized deductions to 28% of value for those earning more than $400,000, rather than the higher value of their applicable tax bracket. This means that taxpayers earning above that income threshold with tax rates higher than 28% would face limited itemized deductions.
Although not specifically mentioned in Biden's tax plan, Democrats in Congress may also push to repeal the cap on the state and local tax deduction that was instituted as part of the Trump tax cuts.
Importantly for both agency owners and employees, Biden's plan would also impose a 12.4% Social Security payroll tax on income earned above $400,000. This would be evenly split between employers and employees and would create a “donut hole" in the current Social Security payroll tax, where wages between $137,700, the current wage cap, and $400,000 are not taxed.
Especially important for agency owners, the Biden plan would phase out President Trump's 20% small business deduction for those making over $400,000. This has the potential to significantly increase taxes for some agency owners by 10%. For agencies that file as a C corporation, the Biden plan would raise the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28%.
With Democrats winning the two Georgia Senate races, more of President-elect Bidens's policies regarding employer-sponsored benefits are also now on the table. Should the Democratic Senate decide to use the reconciliation process on health care, they could push forward with a number of changes including his plan to enact a “public option."
In terms of retirement savings, although details are scarce in his plan, the president-elect wants to replace the existing tax break for retirement plan contributions with a flat tax credit. This would very likely end up being another significant tax increase on higher-income earners.
Additionally, unified Democratic control of Congress will also have a significant impact on insurance-specific issues. With Democrats in control, it becomes entirely possible that Congress will consider policies that would chip away at the state-based system of insurance regulation. For instance, a Democratic Congress could consider legislation that would lead to federal intrusion into risk-based underwriting by banning the use of credit scoring in auto insurance. Additionally, a Democratic Congress may consider legislation to expand the role of Risk Retention Groups with greater preemption of state insurance law or increase the powers of the Federal Insurance Office.
On the positive side, in terms of flood insurance and crop insurance, the Big “I" doesn't see a major legislative sea change ahead as both issues tend to break down along regional lines and not party lines.
Regardless of the outcome of this week's election, the Big “I" remains well-positioned to represent independent agencies with important bipartisan relationships throughout Congress and the new administration. As the new Congress and administration begin to take shape, the Big “I" will continue its strong advocacy for its members and continue to provide important updates through News & Views.
Joseph Cortina is Big “I" director, federal government affairs. Wyatt Stewart is Big “I" assistant vice president of federal government affairs.