Revenue & Spending
A Tale of Two Corporate Tax Plans
by Scott Klinger, 3/11/2014
Last month, House Ways and Means Chairman David Camp (R-MI) released his long awaited tax reform package. In it, he proposed overhauling the corporate tax code, eliminating many deductions and loopholes.
Last week, President Obama released his budget for Fiscal Year 2015, which starts Oct. 1. The president also proposed significant corporate tax reform, also closing some loopholes and proposing a one-time tax on offshore corporate profits that would raise $150 billion to recapitalize the nation's Highway Trust Fund, which is about to run dry.
While there are many important differences between Camp's and Obama's plans for overhauling the corporate tax system, there is one troubling similarity – both propose "revenue neutral" corporate tax reform, with any savings from closing loopholes plowed back into lowering the corporate tax rate. Both leaders assume, wrongly in our opinion, that U.S. corporate taxes are too high and that lowering them would increase the competitiveness of U.S. corporations and increase U.S. job creation.
Camp's Plan for Corporate Tax Reform
Camp believes the tax system is too complex and too riddled with loopholes benefitting special interests. He lays out his plan for reform in a 979-page draft bill.
To his credit, he does close numerous corporate tax loopholes, including many of the popular corporate tax extenders currently up for renewal. Gone is the popular bonus depreciation subsidy, which allows businesses to immediately deduct the full cost of new equipment purchases. This subsidy alone costs taxpayers about $5 billion per year.
The Camp proposal also eliminates the loophole that allows companies to deduct limitless amounts of executive pay – by eliminating the exceptions that allow companies to deduct more than $1 million of pay per executive. This saves $12 billion over ten years.
Lastly, in the plus column, Camp proposed a 3.5 percent excise tax on the ten banks with more than $50 billion in assets, justifying this as a payback for the federal bailout at the onset of the last recession. This would raise $86 billion over 10 years. Needless to say, the banks are furious and are pulling out all the stops to defeat this measure.
The most troubling part of Camp's corporate tax proposal is that he rewards the multinational corporations that have most successfully gamed the current system by using accounting gimmicks to shift their U.S. profits to tax haven countries like the Cayman Islands, Ireland, and Luxembourg, where they are lightly taxed, if at all. He proposes a one-time tax on the more than $2 trillion in offshore profits. If those profits are held in physical assets (buildings and equipment), they would be subject to a 0.035 percent tax; if held in cash, the tax rate would be 8.75 percent. Both are well below the 35 percent rate that companies would owe under current law. Camp would use the money generated from this one-time tax on offshore income to fund $127 billion of infrastructure improvements.
Not only would Camp reward serial tax avoiders from the past, he would throw open the door to even more offshore tax abuse in the future by moving toward a territorial tax system, under which all profits reported offshore are permanently exempt from U.S. taxes. He claims, falsely in our opinion, that he will control future offshore abuse by exacting a tiny one percent minimum tax on all foreign profits in the future.
While Camp eliminates many of the corporate tax extenders that collectively cost the Treasury about $54 billion a year, he makes permanent the two most egregious – the Active Financing Exception and the CFC Look-Through rule, which are the very tools that multinationals use to play their offshore tax avoidance games.
The Active Financing Exception, as the name implies, is an exception to prevailing tax law that prohibits corporations from shifting offshore passive income (income that stems from activity the business does not materially participate in – for instance, by manufacturing a product or delivering a service) from things like financing. This is because paper transactions, like finance contracts, are so easily moved to tax advantaged countries. The Active Financing Exception makes moving interest income out of the reach of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) child's play. It is the primary tool in General Electric's tax dodging tool box. So important is Active Financing to GE that in this year's Form 10-K filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, it discloses to shareholders that failure by Congress to renew the Active Financing Exception is a material risk to its business, which would cause the company's tax bills to increase dramatically.
Apple is one of the principal beneficiaries of the CFC Look-Through. Hearings by the Senate Permanent Committee on Investigations held last summer revealed that Apple avoided paying $9 billion in U.S. taxes in 2012 by shifting profits to an Irish subsidiary that filed no tax returns nor paid any income taxes in the U.S. or Ireland. This "stateless income" is made possible and is encouraged by the CFC Look-Through rule that Camp would make permanent.
The Obama Plan: Infrastructure at the Center of Corporate Tax Reform
One of the centerpieces of President Obama's 2015 budget proposal is a dramatic increase in spending on roads and bridges. Half of the $302 billion the president wants to spend on infrastructure over the next four years would come from a one-time tax on untaxed offshore corporate profits. Obama expects to raise $150 billion in revenue off of the $2 trillion pool of offshore assets, an implied tax rate of just 7.5 percent.
Unlike Camp, Obama has a meaningful plan for closing offshore loopholes and curtailing much of the tax haven abuse that today bleeds the Treasury of $100 billion per year. Under the president's proposal, closing offshore loopholes would raise about $276 billion over the next ten years. Like Camp, the president supports revenue-neutral tax reform and would plow all of these savings back into corporate rate cuts. The president is aiming for a new 28 percent corporate tax rate, seven percent lower than the current rate and three percent higher than the rate proposed by Camp.
Like Camp, the president proposes keeping some tax extenders and allowing others to expire. The president wants to make permanent the Research and Experimentation tax credit and the tax credit for domestic manufacturing. Unlike Camp, the president would allow the Active Financing Exception and CFC Look-Through rule to expire. Obama, like Camp, includes a bank tax in his budget proposal but would raise $30 billion less than Camp would.
The White House has been vague about one of the key components of its plan to stem future offshore tax abuse. To date, the administration has refused to disclose the minimum tax rate that it would apply to foreign profits. There are widespread rumors that the rate would be in the neighborhood of 20 percent. It is likely that a 20 percent minimum tax on offshore profits would still create sufficient incentive for multinational corporations to continue at least some of their profit-shifting behavior to avoid a 28 percent corporate tax rate on their U.S. profits.
Why Are Camp, Obama and Members of Congress from Both Parties So Stubbornly Committed to Not Asking More of Corporations?
While there are significant differences in the corporate tax plans offered by Camp and Obama, at the end of the day, both arrive at the same troubling place: they don't ask corporations to collectively pay any more toward the cost of the government than they do today. The president's plan will do more to increase equity between corporations, ridding us of those companies that endlessly show up on the list of highly profitable corporations paying little or no taxes. But unlike a majority of the American people, neither the president nor the Ways and Means chairman believe corporations should be asked to pay a greater share of the costs of public services and public investment.
In the 1950s, when Republican Dwight Eisenhower occupied the Oval Office, corporate tax receipts paid nearly a third of the federal government's bills; today, corporate taxes pay less than a tenth of the cost of the federal government.
Leaders of both parties who champion cutting corporate taxes are quick to trot out a concern that high U.S. tax rates undermine the competitiveness of U.S. corporations in the global marketplace. It is hard to find any evidence of this at a time when U.S. corporate profits are at all-time highs and U.S. CEO pay is once again exploding. Corporate profits as a percent of GDP exceed 12 percent (they were in the seven percent range back when Ike was president), while corporate taxes as a percent of GDP are less than two percent (compared to about six percent of GDP when Eisenhower led the nation).
A new report by Citizens for Tax Justice, released the same day that Camp released his tax plans, found that the average large profitable U.S. corporation paid just 19.4 percent of its income in federal income taxes between 2008 and 2012, far below the posted 35 corporate tax rate. Perhaps more surprising was CTJ's finding that two-thirds of the multinational companies it studied paid a higher foreign tax rate than they paid on their U.S. earnings – 12 percentage points higher, on average.
So if corporations are already paying sharply lower taxes at home than abroad, why are they fighting so tenaciously for lower U.S. tax rates? It could be the same reason they fought so hard the last time corporate taxes were dramatically cut in 1986: they could use lower U.S. tax rates to press foreign nations to cut their tax rates. There's been an international tax rate war ever since – one result of which has been the erosion of fiscal resources and the under-resourcing of public investment in many countries around the world.
Why Are We Holding Infrastructure Spending Hostage to Tax Reform?
Both Obama and Camp have conditioned their infrastructure investment proposals on undertaking corporate tax reform. Washington leaders have been promising comprehensive tax reform for the last two years. Most observers think it will be at least two years and perhaps four years or more before serious reform occurs.
Every year of delay means another $100 billion in the pockets of those who are gaming the system and using lax international tax rules to pad their profits. Every year wasted also means another $100 billion drained from the Treasury – money not available for infrastructure spending or any other public need.
A far better idea is to fix the sinkholes in the tax code that allow this anti-social and unpatriotic behavior to continue unchecked. Closing the sinkholes in the tax code would allow us to raise an extra $100 billion a year to fix the sinkholes, potholes, and leaking water systems in our communities. And these investments would create jobs – a lot of them. The Center for Effective Government's 2013 report, The Bridge to Prosperity, concluded that spending the additional $124 billion a year needed to bring our entire infrastructure (roads, bridges, schools, water systems, and levees/dams) up to current standards would create 2.5 million new jobs.
There aren't too many things that liberals and conservatives agree on in this country – one is that we need more jobs, another is that we need to fix our infrastructure, and a third is that we need to eliminate offshore tax loopholes that allow large and very profitable corporations to get away with paying little to no federal income taxes.
With more than 10 million unemployed Americans and the ranks of the long-term unemployed growing every month, investing in infrastructure is not something that should wait. There's plenty of money to create jobs today by closing loopholes that a bipartisan majority of Americans think are wrong and should be ended. Demand more from your elected representatives.