Senate Dividend Plan Ineffective and Counterproductive

Report Taxes

Senate Dividend Plan Ineffective and Counterproductive

May 14, 2003 6 min read
Norbert Michel
Research Fellow in Financial Regulations
Norbert Michel studies and writes about financial markets and monetary policy, including the reform of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Senate plan:

  • leaves 81 percent of dividend income subject to double taxation.
  • does not address economic distortions.
  • could backfare and not add to economic growth, setting back fundamental tax reform.

The Senate Finance Committee recently proposed a tax plan that would exclude the first $500 of dividend income, and 10 percent of any amount over $500, from federal personal income taxes.[1] The chairman of the Committee, Chuck Grassley (R-IA), then announced that "While not an absolute victory against double taxation, the proposal is reported to cover 86 percent of dividend receiving taxpayers and is a good step in the effort to eliminate economic distortions."[2] The Senator is overly optimistic.

IRS data, from 1999, show that about half of all returns with dividend income reported more than $550 in dividends. (See Table 1 and Table 1-A) In fact, more than 97 percent of all dividend income is reported on returns with more than $500 in dividend income. (See Table 2) Still, the main reason the Finance Committee's plan would do little to grow the economy is that it would leave about 81 percent of dividend income subject to double taxation. (See Table 3)

Supporters of dividend tax relief have argued that eliminating this double taxation would lower companies' cost of capital, thus increasing corporate investment and, therefore, additional jobs and higher incomes. This concept is somewhat technical, but its underlying logic is quite straightforward. The key is that corporate managers increase their investments because the cost of the funds (the capital) needed to invest in projects falls. Since their cost of capital would fall, some investment opportunities currently expected to lose money would instead be viewed as profitable.[3]

Another disadvantage of the Senate's plan is that it does nothing to change the unequal treatment of dividends and capital gains, thus leaving current economic distortions in place. Incidentally, the House Ways and Means Committee proposal creates uniform personal tax rates on both dividends and capital gains.[4] The House plan would reduce the personal income tax rate on long-term capital gains and dividends to 5 percent for filers in the 10 and 15 percent individual income tax brackets, and 15 percent for filers in the higher tax brackets.[5]

The Senate's plan would leave the majority of dividends subject to double taxation and would do virtually nothing to address economic distortions in the current tax system. For these reasons, the Senate's version of dividend tax relief would be ineffective and, perhaps, counterproductive to fundamental tax reform. By merely giving the appearance of lowering the double taxation of dividends, reaping the benefits actually doing so should not be expected.

Methodology Note
Dividend income reported to the IRS on the 1040 form includes dividends from direct holdings of equities, dividend distributions from mutual funds, and interest distributions from money market mutual funds. As a result, dividend income on the IRS Public Use File should be adjusted downward when estimating the amount of dividends from direct holdings of equities. Since precise distributional data is not available, dividend income was reduced proportionately for all taxpayers.

First, we reduced the amount of IRS dividend income to account for total distributions of mutual funds by using the most recently available data. These data were taken from the Bureau of Economic Analysis' (BEA) Survey of Current Business (from Table 1 - Comparison of Personal Income with AGI by Type of Income)[6], and were as follows:



IRS Dividends from 1040 Form


Mutual Fund Distributions to Individuals


Dividends from direct holdings of equities





Next, we used Investment Company Institute (ICI) data to account for the portion of mutual fund distributions that were money market interest distributions.[7] These data were as follows:


lCl Distribution Data

Money Markets

Long Terms
























Using these ratios, we adjusted each record in the 1999 Statistics On Income (SOI) Public Use File. This adjustment was calculated as follows:

Calculation for corporate dividends to individuals that qualify for preferential tax treatment:

[(IRS dividends * .5661) + (IRS dividends*(1-.5661)*.4922)]

[1] The Senate plan raises this 10 percent amount to 20 percent in 2008. See "Estimated Revenue Effects of A Chairman's Amendment in the Nature of a Substitute to the 'Jobs and Growth Tax Act of 2003," Joint Committee on Taxation, JCX-45-03, May 8, 2003.

[2] Fox News: Special Report with Brit Hume, May 8, 2003.

[3] For more on this concept, see Norbert J. Michel, "Everyone Profits From Hurdling Dividends," WebMemo #248, April 3, 2003, at, and Norbert J. Michel, Ralph A. Rector and Alfredo Goyburu, "How the President's Dividend Plan Would Increase Corporate Investment," Center for Data Analysis Report #03-07, April 30, 2003, at

[4] Even President Bush's dividend exclusion plan was neutral with respect to its tax treatment of dividends and capital gains. The president's plan would have excluded dividend income from federal personal income taxes and provided shareholders with a basis adjustment for retained funds. From an economic standpoint, however, the basis adjustment, which lowers shareholders' effective capital gains tax rates, is also important. Combined, the two components eliminate distortions from having various tax rate structures for corporate income, and eliminate a major source of double taxation.

[5] See "Jobs and Growth Tax Act of 2003: Highlights of the CDA's Analysis of Chairman Thomas's Tax Legislation," The Heritage Foundation, WebMemo #271, May 7, 2003, at

[6] Survey of Current Business, November 2002, page 16.

[7] ICI emailed the mutual fund distribution data directly to the researchers.


Norbert Michel
Norbert Michel

Research Fellow in Financial Regulations