Mr. Obama isn’t setting himself apart merely from conservatives with this Buffett ploy. He is rejecting 35 years of bipartisan tax policy that began with the passage of the Steiger Amendment by a Democratic Congress that cut the capital-gains rate to 28% from 35% in 1978.
As the nearby chart shows, the rate has never since risen above 28%, and the last time it moved that high was in 1986 as part of the Reagan-Rostenkowski tax reform that also cut the top marginal income tax rate to 28% from 50%. With income-tax rates so low, a differential was arguably less necessary—though it’s worth noting that capital gains revenues fell dramatically after that rate increase.
A decade later Bill Clinton agreed to cut the rate back to 20% as part of the balanced-budget deal with Newt Gingrich. Capital gains revenues soared, helping to balance the federal budget. Nearly every study estimates that the revenue-maximizing tax rate from the capital gains tax is between 15% and 28%. Doug Holtz-Eakin, the former director of the Congressional Budget Office, says that a 30% tax rate “is almost surely above the rate that maximizes tax revenues.” So it’s likely the Buffett trick would lose revenue for the government.