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With running mate Paul Ryan's tax returns released on a Friday night — a good week and a half ahead of the Republican convention — the presidential campaign can finally move off the subject of tax returns.
Or so Mitt Romney can hope.
In reality, the numbers in the Wisconsin congressman's filings provide new data points, for those inclined to see things this way, about how far Romney's financial situation is from that of ordinary voters.
Depends On The Income
Compared to the median American family, Ryan is wealthy, with a total income of $215,000 in 2010 and $323,000 last year. Compared to Romney, though, he is poor. Despite this, Ryan's effective federal tax rates exceed the 13.9 percent Romney paid in 2010, and the 15.4 percent Romney estimates he will pay in 2011 when his return is finalized.
Romney has tried to explain that his rate is a result of his income deriving from investments rather than wages. But to the extent that it illustrates how skewed the tax code has become in favor of "unearned" income versus "earned" income, the explanation may play right into the hands of President Obama and Democrats, who have been arguing that the wealthiest should have to pay more.
A major — although, perhaps not widely understood — result of the 2003 tax cuts was to lower the maximum tax rate on capital gains and qualified dividends to 15 percent. This category makes up the lion's share of income for the richest Americans.
And because that category is already exempt from Social Security and Medicare taxes, middle-class Americans who make their livings from a job with a paycheck typically pay a higher percentage in federal taxes than those who live on investment income. Social Security and Medicare taxes total about 15 percent, and that's before any federal income tax is added.
About half of the Ryan family income in the years he released came from his congressional salary, which was subject to those payroll taxes. The rest came from various investments and, in 2011, a trust benefiting his wife, Janna Ryan, upon the death of her mother.
Ryan, in fact, filed an amended return this May, amid vetting by the Romney campaign as they mulled the choice of a running mate. The stated reason for the new filing: to include income from the trust that was "inadvertently omitted on the originally filed return."
The 'Right Number'?
The details of Ryan's taxes, though, seemed less significant than the fact of their release, which let the Obama campaign steer the topic of the day back toward one that has hounded Romney since his Republican rivals hammered on it back in January.
During a South Carolina debate back then, Romney was asked if he would release his returns, and he answered, "Maybe," to a chorus of boos.
He was reminded then, as the Obama people remind him now, that it was his own father, George Romney, who set the standard for presidential candidates releasing tax returns in the interests of full disclosure.
Two weeks after the South Carolina event, at a Florida debate, Romney answered the tax-return question:
"I agree with my dad on a lot of things, but we also disagree. ... And going out with 12 years of returns is not something I'm going to do. I'm putting out two years, which is more than anyone else on this stage," he said. "I think it'll satisfy the interests of the American people to see that I pay my taxes, where I give my charitable contributions to, and I think that's the right number."
Those two years, though, are less than the three years Romney said he would release in 1994, as he was running against Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy.
"It's time the biggest-taxing senator in Washington shows the people of Massachusetts how much he pays in taxes," Romney said, according to an April 14, 1994, account in The Boston Globe.
In that race, Kennedy did not release his tax returns, and neither did Romney.
Obama Tries To Make A Deal
Four years ago, tax returns did become an issue in the Democratic presidential primary. In March, Obama released seven years of returns, 2000 through 2006. Then-Sen. Hillary Clinton released her returns some weeks later, and called on Obama to release his 2007 return, which he then did just two hours before a key debate in Philadelphia.
Obama's eventual Republican opponent in 2008, John McCain, only released two years of returns. But Obama did not make a big issue of it then. (McCain, when vetting potential running mates, received 23 years worth of returns from Romney.)
Obama is clearly making an issue of it now. On Friday, his campaign promised not to bug Romney about it any further if he released three more years worth (Romney was not interested). And on Saturday, the Obama camp emailed its supporters inviting them to sign a letter insisting that Romney release more returns.
In the intervening years since 2008, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have released four more years of returns, meaning that anyone with an Internet connection can now peruse their income tax returns from a full 12 years. That's the same number that George Romney released in 1968.
S.V. Dáte is the congressional editor on NPR's Washington Desk.
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