Earlier this week, the Obama administration and Treasury Department unveiled a “framework” for corporate tax reform. Like the rest of the tax code, the corporate income tax has been riddled with ever-more loopholes since the Tax Reform Act of 1986—the last significant scrubbing of the tax code. Here’s my distilled version of their five-point framework:
- Eliminate loopholes to broaden the tax’s base, coupled with a cut to the statutory corporate rate from 35 percent to 28 percent.
- Reinstate tax expenditures for domestic manufacturers, lowering their effective tax rate from 28 percent to 25 percent.
- Establish a new minimum tax on foreign earnings.
- Ever-present nod to small businesses concerns.
- “Restore fiscal responsibility and not add a dime to the deficit.”
To lower the tax rate to 28 percent and yet keep the corporate income tax changes revenue-neutral, the framework proposes eliminating a handful of specific business tax expenditures—oil and gas subsidies, carried interest, last in, first out inventory accounting, special depreciation rules—repeatedly proposed in budget requests (summary of most of these can be found here). But the Joint Committee on Taxation recently estimated that revenue-neutral corporate tax reform could only be consistent with a top statutory rate of 28 percent if all major tax expenditures were eliminated.
The administration framework falls shy of that mark, and instead proposes new manufacturing tax incentives and a permanent extension of the research and experimentation credit (which is renewed annually as part of the “business tax extenders”). In the president’s FY13 budget, these “incentives for manufacturing” totaled $121 billion in revenue loss over a decade. The administration claims their plan will raise $250 billion—beyond offsets for the rate reduction—to pay for the permanent extension of these tax credits. JCT’s math, however, implies this figure may come from a current policy baseline assuming some of the “business tax extenders” (tax breaks which are not part of the permanent tax code but which are allegedly temporary yet extended by Congress like clockwork every year) are continued. Full continuation would reduce revenue by a hefty $839 billion over a decade.
On one hand, using this baseline seems odd; scoring any “savings” relative to current policy appears to give businesses credit for 25-plus years of successful lobbying. The bill of tax extenders includes the alcohol fuel credit, special depreciation rules for favored industries (e.g., restaurants, ethanol, race horses), special expensing rules for favored industries (e.g., film and TV production), and special foreign income deferral for the financial sector (e.g., Subpart F exception for active financing).
On the other hand, ending annual budget gimmicks (the extenders) does constitute a step toward responsible budgeting, and the depressing politics of tax reform suggests that these extenders will only be vanquished in some sort of bargain like that proposed by the administration.
But relative to current law (which does not assume the annual extension of these targeted tax breaks), Citizens for Tax Justice Director Bob McIntyre estimated that the president has proposed $1.2 trillion in tax cuts and only $0.3 trillion in offsetting loophole closers, leaving a gap of $0.9 trillion. This is hard to square with the administration’s professed intent not to add a dime to the deficit. And since when does restoring fiscal responsibility mean not adding a dime to the deficit?
Broadening the tax base and eliminating egregious preferences that have been lobbied into the tax code is good policy. But there is no reason a priori that tax reform be revenue-neutral. Indeed, the clearest flaw in the current tax system is that it simply doesn’t raise enough revenue to pay for government’s commitments. As CTJ spells out, it would be much more appropriate for corporate tax reform to be revenue-positive, relative to the much more stringent current law baseline.
Purported concern about the budget deficit always seems to vanish when it comes to tax cuts and vested business interests. “Shared sacrifice” is all the rage when it comes to reducing Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security benefits, or raising taxes on the individual income side; where is the “shared sacrifice” in this framework for corporate income tax overhaul?