The Obama administration released a "framework" for corporate tax reform yesterday, proposing to lower corporate tax rates, and pay for that by closing various corporate tax loopholes.
The "framework" isn't really a corporate tax reform proposal. It is a message document, framed in a bitterly partisan election year when no reforms are about to take place. So what is the message?
The president wants to show that he's sensitive to business complaints about the complicated tax code with the highest nominal rates in the industrial world, outraged at the loopholes and scams built into the code, committed to providing incentives for businesses to create jobs here at home, and stout in opposing more corporate tax cuts unlike his Republican opponents.
But a brief look at the framework shows how truly limited and conservative our debate has become. The corporation lobby has won the fight before it has begun by defining the terms of the debate.
1. Fair Share for Corporations? Not
The prime message is that the framework is designed to be "revenue neutral," budget-speak meaning the corporations will not be asked to pay more to help address America's large investment and budget deficits. At a time when the most vulnerable in society -- seniors on Medicare and Social Security, the poor in need of home heating aid, the disabled on Medicaid -- are being called on for "shared sacrifice," the corporations get a pass.
Why? American corporations are sitting on literally trillions in profits.
Corporations provided only about 7.9% of government receipts in FY2011, down from 11% in the prosperous 1990s. Corporate tax avoidance is notorious, with dozens of the Fortune 500 managing to pay no taxes at all in different years. The effective tax rate US corporations pay is lower than the average of the industrial nations.
Moreover, corporations are among the largest beneficiaries of government spending. They use the roads, sewers, communications and other basic infrastructure provided by government. They profit from the public education and training that provide them with workers willing and able to learn. They gain immense benefits from federally funded research and development. They rely on government to provide and enforce the legal framework for doing business. They depend on the U.S. military to protect trade lanes and overseas investments. And this doesn't even begin to count the entire industries that are largely creatures of government procurement and subsidies -- from defense contractors to drug companies to hospital complexes to nuclear power plants and more.
And the largest, and arguably most destructive deficit Americans now face is the investment deficit in areas vital to our future -- and vital to corporate competitiveness. Our infrastructure is so decrepit that it is not only a competitive burden; it is dangerous to our health. Our education system fails to give poor kids a fair start in life. College grows unaffordable for more and more working families.
Any sensible progressive corporate tax reform should shut down loopholes and tax dodges AND provide greater revenue to the federal government to help pay for the investments we need and address the deficits we face. Taxing some of the trillions that corporations are sitting on and putting the money to work modernizing our infrastructure will generate more jobs, more growth and more competitive advantage than allowing the companies to sit on the money.
This is an argument that we should have. The president has decided to pass.
2. The Illusion of the Simplified Tax Code
The Obama "framework" is premised on an illusion that has universal favor in Washington. Our tax code is riddled with loopholes and exemptions. Therefore, we should lower rates, eliminate the loopholes and have a more efficient, fairer, simpler tax code. Sounds great, but this is largely a scam.
Any such reform gets rid of some corporate loopholes but not the corporate lobbies. The rates come down, and after a few years of campaign contributions, intense lobbying, and independent expenditures, the loopholes come back.
This game was run before in the mid-eighties with the oft-lauded bipartisan Reagan tax reforms, championed by the sainted Senator Bill Bradley. Tax rates were lowered, particularly on the top end, and loopholes were closed. Now the tax code is once more riddled with loopholes, but the rates haven't gone back up. Billionaires are paying lower tax rates than their chauffeurs. So a new movement is building for -- you guessed it -- lowering the tax rates in exchange for closing loopholes.
Reminds me of Lucy repeatedly holding the football for Charlie Brown to kick and pulling it away at the last moment. We laughed as he literally fell for it every time. On "tax reform," we are equal suckers, but it's no laughing matter.
And, as illustrated by the Obama "framework," loopholes are always with us. Most tax breaks or exemptions reflect someone's policy preferences or some corporate lobby's profit motives. Obama, for example, would make tax advantages for research and development, clean energy and domestic manufacturing permanent. He'd reduce the tax breaks and subsidies offered to the oil companies -- now racking up the most profits in the history of the world. These are priorities that most progressives would support. But they don't lead to a simple tax code -- and they only open the bidding. Any actual tax reform that gained bipartisan support would be riddled with a lot more exemptions than these.
3. A Minimum Tax on Multinationals -- sort of
The president's framework sensibly calls for a minimum tax on corporate profits generated or reported abroad by multinationals. Under current law, the profits are taxed only when they are returned -- "repatriated" -- to the U.S. This encourages multinationals to cook their books to report profits in tax havens, and store those profits abroad, encouraging the movement of jobs and plants overseas.
It also creates what is becoming a Democratic lobbyists' cash cow -- the periodic push for a "tax holiday" to allow companies to repatriate their overseas profits at a scandalously concessionary rate -- 6% is a favored number. Proponents claim this will help boost domestic investment, jobs and government revenue. In fact, the last time this was tried, it failed to produce anything except a tax dodge.
The president's call for a minimum tax would effectively block that caper. It would help cut down on the use of tax havens, and the rigging of pricing and corporate books to report profits abroad.
Of course, it depends on what the minimum tax rate is. If it is 6%, then the corporations will have won permanent relief (although the lobbyists will need another profit center).
So what is the president's rate? Ah, we don't know. It is unstated and undefined. Perhaps unmentionable. In the words of the proposal:
Lobbyists, start your engines.
[F]oreign income deferred in a low- tax jurisdiction would be subject to immediate U.S. taxation up to the minimum tax rate with a foreign tax credit allowed for income taxes on that income paid to the host country. This minimum tax would be designed to balance the need to stop rewarding tax havens and to prevent a race to the bottom with the goal of keeping U.S. companies on a level playing field with competitors when engaged in activities which, by necessity, must occur in a foreign country.
4. Say What?
This message piece does send us a clear message. We have a debate between the right -- Republicans like Mitt Romney who would cut corporate taxes and ask them to pay less -- and a business-friendly, centrist president who won't call on corporations to pay more. "Fair share?" -- not so much.
Follow Robert L. Borosage on Twitter: www.twitter.com/borosage