Stern Advice: The party platform: What’s in it for you?

Reuters | by Linda Stern | 08/30/2012

A convention-goer takes part in the third session of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida August 29, 2012.
Credit: Reuters/Eric Thayer

(Reuters) – Of course on November 6, you’ll vote for the presidential candidate who has the vision for America that you like best; the one whose policies and strengths will be best for the country.

But wouldn’t it be nice to know how that candidate would hit or help your wallet? There are some clues to those consumer issues in the party platforms now circulating.

The Republican Party approved its platform Tuesday night; Democrats are still reviewing bits and pieces of theirs ahead of the party convention next week.

But before diving in, a caveat: “What usually happens with platforms is they disappear without a trace. Candidates ignore them,” says Norman Ornstein, a political analyst with the American Enterprise Institute.

With candidates being chosen by primary instead of convention floor votes and every speech and nuance telegraphed on television and the internet, platforms become less binding and more political.

So a party might throw things into its platform to appease its various factions while the party’s presidential candidate has his own ideas about what he would do. Nevertheless, voters are keenly interested in the platforms, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

Here are a few clues to what might happen to some consumer pocketbook issues, based on the Republican platform approved on Tuesday, August 28.

— Bigger down payments? The Republican platform notes that the Federal Housing Authority has “crowded out the private sector and… must be downsized.” The FHA, which doesn’t require the same lofty 20 percent down payments needed for traditional mortgages, has been backing more than half the mortgages of first-time home buyers. If Mitt Romney is president, he may try to give private lenders a boost by limiting FHA loans. Given current lending standards, that would mean borrowers would need squeaky clean credit histories and enough cash for sizeable down payments.

— Changing internet bills? The current administration “is trying to micromanage telecom as if it were a railroad network” via the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rule, says the Republican platform. That rule prohibits carriers from having differential rules and prices for the traffic on their networks. Should Mitt Romney be elected and persuade Congress or the FCC to repeal that rule, it could affect users in different ways. Companies like Google might have to pay carriers more for moving their traffic, and that could take pressure off consumers. Or carriers could start charging more to customers who stream more videos, and eat more internet bytes.

— New internet sales taxes? Here’s what is NOT in the Republican platform: Any mention of internet sales taxes. Party regulars are divided on the wisdom of letting states tax internet transactions, with some retailers wanting to see these taxes on their cyber-competitors, while the anti-tax faction is stolidly against these taxes, too.

— Vulnerable tax deductions? Both parties actually favor some sort of rate-lowering, deduction-limiting tax reform, but it would be hard to accomplish that, given the current federal budget crunch, without hitting the deduction for mortgage interest. Republicans did consider a no-exceptions support of the mortgage deduction but rejected it in lieu of a statement supporting the deduction “in the event we do not achieve” tax reform.

— Lower taxes on investments? The Republican platform not only calls for preserving the George W. Bush-era 15 percent top tax rate for capital gains and dividends, it calls for complete elimination of taxes on capital gains and dividends for low- and middle-income taxpayers, without defining those brackets. That could be a boost for retirees who rely on dividends but are in low tax brackets. (Currently, taxpayers in the bottom tax bracket pay zero percent on that investment income.) The Democratic party has recently split on the issue, with congressional Democrats more willing to keep rates low on investment income while President Obama had proposed raising those rates for high earners.

— Savings for same-sex partners? It’s no secret that the Republican platform strongly supports the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of gay and lesbian marriages. The Democratic platform reportedly includes support for the federal government’s recognition of same sex marriage. The bottom line? If the federal government recognized same-sex marriage, gay and lesbian partners could not only get married, they could file joint tax returns, inherit each other’s retirement accounts, be on each other’s health insurance plans, and find other ways to save.

— Shifting education costs? If they have their way, Republicans would get the U.S. Department of Education out of the college lending business and restore the Feds to the role of guaranteeing private loans. That doesn’t necessarily mean the loans would cost more; federal rules could limit interest rates. But it could cause more confusion for the college-bound, who may find themselves pitched both federally backed and (more expensive) private loans from the same lenders at the same time.

The Republican platform also voices support for open enrollment public schools and vouchers and tax credits for parents sending their elementary-, middle- and high school-age children to private schools.

— Sweeping healthcare changes? The Republican platform explicitly calls for a repeal of the healthcare reform act, but doesn’t explicitly say what it would do in its absence. It doesn’t carry presumptive vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s proposal to turn Medicare into a voucher program, but it hints at it by promising to “empower millions of seniors to control their personal healthcare decisions.” Here’s another line to dissect: The Republican platform targets smoking, obesity and substance abuse as drivers of healthcare problems and cost, noting “far greater emphasis has to be put upon personal responsibility for health maintenance.” How that would work — higher insurance fees for people who don’t take care of themselves, soda taxes or some other approach — isn’t mentioned.

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