What Happens If We Go Over the Cliff?

PHOTO: Barack Obama and Mitch McConnell

America is swiftly approaching the fiscal cliff.

President Obama and congressional leaders have talked for weeks with varying degrees of frequency and success at compromising, and one precept resonates throughout the public statements of politicians and economists: the so-called "fiscal cliff" would be a very bad thing.

But what actually happens if Washington takes us over it?

As has been well documented, the "cliff" is not one thing, but a ball of expiring economic provisions that lead to automatic policy changes at year's end, loosely grouped under the catch phrase. They fall into two categories, taxes and spending.

Should we fall off the cliff, the tax code would change most dramatically with the expiration of the so-called "Bush tax cuts," which created new brackets and lowered tax rates for both middle-class and high earners. According to the Tax Policy Center at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution, the average American taxpayer would see a tax hike of $3,446, ABC's David Muir reported for "World News."

Where do the hikes fall, exactly? For many tax brackets, rates would jump by at least three percentage points. The middle class would see the worst of it, according to analysis from the Congressional Research Service, the nonpartisan research arm that studies policy changes at Congress's request.

For high earners, married couples making more than $222,300 but less than $397,000, rates would jump from 33 percent to 36 percent. For the highest earners, couples making over $397,000, taxes would rise from 35 percent to 39.6 percent.

But they'd rise for almost everyone else, too. Couples making $145,900 - $222,300 would see a rate jump from 28 percent to 31 percent. Couples making $72,300 - $145,900 would see rates jump from 25 percent to 28 percent.

The middle class would take the biggest hit: Married couples earning $60,350 - $72,300 would see tax rates jump from 15 percent to 28 percent. That means that without any credits or deductions, a couple making $65,000 would go from taking home $55,250 to taking home $46,800 next year if Congress and the president fail to strike a deal.

The cliff's tax implications go beyond the simple income-tax rate: The Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) and the estate tax are also on the table with year-end deadlines.

The AMT is a tax that prevents high earners from escaping income-tax liability by claiming too many deductions. Taxpayers over a certain income add back certain deductions to see if they must pay a minimum rate. Ever since Bush's tax cuts, Congress has repeatedly extended an "AMT patch" to maintain the income threshold. According to the Congressional Research Service, if Congress doesn't act again this year, that threshold will drop from $74,450 to $45,000 for married couples and from $48,450 to $33,750 for individuals, exposing more people to the alternative minimum.

The estate tax, demonized by Republicans as the dreaded "death tax," would change significantly. Right now, estates of over $5.12 million are taxed at a maximum of 35 percent. If Congress doesn't act, next year estates of over $1 million will be taxed at 55 percent.

No one likes paying taxes, but the spending side of the cliff isn't supposed to be all that fun, either.

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