The Nation: Emerging Fiscal Cliff Deal Spares Corporations, but Not the Safety Net

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(Original Post)

George Zornick on December 12, 2012 - 12:07 PM ET

The Wall Street Journal has news of some actual developments in the ongoing fiscal cliff negotiations: this morning, it reported that President Obama will add corporate tax reform to his offer to House Republicans, in an effort to bring them along and invite a buy-in from the pesky CEOs crowding up the airwaves during most of this saga.

The Journal says “The White House’s corporate-tax suggestion wasn’t specific” but that “White House officials, in making the suggestion, cited a corporate-tax plan the administration unveiled in February.” The plan the White House outlined earlier this year, if you don’t recall, was to lower the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 28 percent while closing corporate tax loopholes to a degree that enough revenue is raised to offset the rate reduction.

So you can immediately see the first problem with Obama’s proposal—since it’s revenue-neutral, it asks corporate America to contribute nothing to a final deficit reduction passage.

Citizens for Tax Justice immediately flagged Obama’s revenue-neutral plan as problematic when the White House released it earlier this year. CEOs like to whine that the statutory corporate tax rate in America of 35 percent is the highest in the world, but CTJ studied the Fortune 500 companies that had profits in each of the past three years and found that their average effective tax rate was actually just 18.5 percent, thanks to a variety of loopholes, exemptions, and offshoring. Thirty of those corporations had negative tax rates, meaning they actually got money from the Treasury over that three-year period.

CTJ thus concluded “The first goal of corporate tax reform should be to increase the overall amount of tax revenue collected from U.S. corporations.” But Obama’s plan doesn’t do that.

Worse, his plan would quite likely give the corporations an even lower final tax bill once it’s implemented—or rather, not implemented. Obama’s corporate tax plan suffers from the same problems as Romney’s income tax plan: it lowers rates, which is immediate and likely permanent, but doesn’t actually specify enough loopholes to make up the revenue. CTJ studied Obama’s February proposal and found that is specified only about a fourth of the loopholes that needed to be closed in order to offset the rate reductions and “only gives vague suggestions” about where the other 75 percent of the revenue would come from.

It’s quite likely that corporate America and its allies in Congress would fight mightily and successfully to preserve their special tax benefits, and this same Journal story notes that when Obama released his earlier corporate tax plan, “Many [business groups] were supportive of the proposal to lower rates but worried about which industries might get hurt by an accompanying elimination of tax breaks.”

Note also that Obama’s corporate tax plan proposes some sort of “territorial tax system” in which corporations could bring profits earned overseas back home at some rate lower than the current law requires, which is 35 percent. This is something the CEOs now lobbying Washington on the fiscal cliff badly want—as we outlined earlier this month, it will reap them tens of millions in benefits. Obama’s plan, CTJ notes, says corporations won’t be able to bring the profits back at a zero percent rate—though no country allows that—but notably does not specify what the rate should be. Given that Republicans have been pushing for an essentially insignificant 1.25 percent rate on repatriated profits, Obama’s lack of specificity is troubling.

This, in short, is a big win for corporate America if enacted. And CEOs that have been meeting with White House officials are quickly getting behind it—The New York Times reported today that many of them are willing to back a plan that raises personal income tax rates as long as they get this corporate tax “reform.” This is rational, especially since many of the country’s wealthiest don’t earn payroll income, but rather are paid through capital gains and dividends and thus wouldn’t be terribly affected by income tax hikes.

But say Obama actually succeeds at pushing through truly revenue-neutral corporate tax reform: given the painful safety net cuts being discussed, some progressives might argue that at least the corporate tax stuff is preferable, considering Obama has to give up something in the negotiations.

Maybe. But not so fast—it’s not necessarily an either/or. More like a “both.” The Journal article notes what has already been widely reported: if Republicans relent on top income tax rates, the White House will move to cut safety net programs deeper than what’s been discussed already:

    The administration’s new proposal made no major concessions on entitlements such as Medicare, which it is withholding until Republicans give up ground on tax rates.[…]

    Some Democrats regard Republicans’ eventual concession on taxes as a foregone conclusion, and they have begun to talk among themselves about which concessions on entitlement programs they might be asked to make. The three leading proposals floated by Republicans include increasing the eligibility age for Medicare, requiring wealthier people to pay more for Medicare and changing the formula for calculating Consumer Price Index adjustments to slow the growth of Social Security benefits.

This is truly damaging stuff. As we have noted, raising the Medicare eligibility age—which Obama didn’t rule out yesterday in an interview with ABC News—saves the government $5.4 billion but shifts $11.4 billion in costs onto seniors, their employers, and states. A new Center for American Progress study out this week finds that if the Medicare age is raised from 65 to 67, as many as 5.4 million seniors would have to either postpone retirement, buy expensive private insurance, or get on Medicaid.

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As for changing the Consumer Price Index formula, that amounts to a deep benefit cut as well, and one that strikes low-income Americans disproportionately. Dylan Matthews has an extensive look at it here, but in short it amounts to a 5 percent benefit cut for people on Social Security which only gets bigger over time. It would also increase tax revenue, but in a very regressive way: it hikes taxes on families making between $30,000 and $40,000 annually at a rate six times higher than it does for millionaires.

So step back and take the long view: Obama could easily end up agreeing to a deal that asks corporate America to contribute nothing—revenue-neutrality is the selling point of his corporate tax plan—and could even end up giving them extra benefits. Meanwhile, Americans who rely on the safety net would have to make substantial sacrifice, and moreso if they’re not wealthy. If this gets put down on paper and put before Congress, expect a nuclear war to start on the left.