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Senator Schumer Supported, then Opposed, and Now Supports, Amnesty for Corporate Tax Dodgers

In 2004, Senator Charles (Chuck) Schumer of New York voted in favor of the so-called American Jobs Creation Act, a bill full of so many tax breaks for special interests that one observer called it a “bacchanalia of Caligulan proportions.” The bill, which many Democrats and Republicans supported, prompted one business lobbyist to confess to a reporter that the policy process had “risen to a new level of sleaze.” One of the most outrageous breaks in the bill was an amnesty for corporate tax dodgers, a measure called a “repatriation holiday” by its supporters.

A second “repatriation holiday” was proposed as “economic stimulus” in 2009, but Senator Schumer, like most Senators, voted against it because of data summarized by the Congressional Research Service showing that the 2004 measure did not create jobs. In fact, the research showed that the benefits went to enrich shareholders rather than to job creation.

Now Senator Schumer has switched positions again and is supporting a second repatriation holiday.

How the Repatriation Holiday Would Help Corporations

In theory, U.S. corporations pay U.S. income taxes on their profits no matter where they are generated. But they are allowed to “defer” (not pay) U.S. taxes on their offshore profits until they bring those profits back to the U.S. (until they “repatriate” the profits), which may never happen. (A separate provision ensures that these profits are not double-taxed if taxes are paid to the foreign government.)

A tax holiday for repatriated profits would allow them to bring these profits to the U.S. and pay no taxes, or pay a very low rate. (The 2004 measure taxed offshore profits repatriated during the holiday at a nominal rate of just 5.25 percent instead of the normal 35 percent corporate income tax rate.)

Another Repatriation Holiday Will Cost the U.S. $79 Billion in Tax Revenue

According to the non-partisan Joint Committee on Taxation, a repeat of the 2004 repatriation holiday would raise some revenue during the first few years, but then reduce revenue by a larger amount over the rest of the decade, resulting in a net loss of about $79 billion over ten years.

The analysis also shows that a repatriation holiday that is slightly less generous to corporations (one taxing repatriated offshore profits at 10.5 percent) would cost about $42 billion over ten years. 

Another Repatriation Holiday Will Cost the U.S. Jobs

One factor causing the $79 billion revenue loss is the way U.S. corporations will respond when Congress shows itself willing to enact a repatriation holiday more than once. Corporations will likely shift even more profits offshore in the long-run, because corporate leaders will think they can simply wait for Congress to enact the next repatriation holiday allowing them to bring those profits back to the U.S. tax-free or almost tax-free. This means more investment will be made overseas rather than here in the U.S.

Incredibly, the coalition of companies promoting the holiday argue that it will create jobs, even though the non-partisan Congressional Research Service found that the 2004 measure failed to create jobs and that the benefits went instead to corporate shareholders.

The Repatriation Holiday Is an Amnesty for Corporate Tax Dodgers

Corporations would not just shift real investments (real operations and jobs) overseas. They would also respond by increasing the amount of profits they shift to offshore tax havens through sham transactions that exist only on paper. In fact, the proposal would give the greatest benefits to the worst corporate actors, those who shift profits offshore to avoid U.S. taxes.

A U.S. company that is doing real business in another country typically will reinvest those offshore profits in factories, oil wells or other assets, making it difficult to bring those profits back to the U.S. But a company that is engaging in profit-shifting (disguising U.S. profits as “foreign” profits through transactions that exist only on paper) has likely merely shifted profits to a tax haven subsidiary that consists of little more than a post office box. It’s much easier to repatriate these offshore profits than the offshore profits from real business activities. 

Also, a U.S. corporation that is doing business in a typical foreign country is already paying some tax to the foreign government, which means they can already repatriate those profits to the U.S. without paying the full 35 percent U.S. corporate income tax rate. But a U.S. corporation that has shifted its profits to a tax haven is typically paying no taxes to the tax haven government, which means they would pay the full 35 percent U.S. rate if they repatriated those profits under current law. U.S. corporations shifting their profits to tax havens therefore stand to gain the most from a repatriation holiday.

Corporate Leaders Are Divided on the Repatriation Holiday

Some corporate leaders have banded together in an extremely well-funded campaign to promote a second repatriation holiday. But other corporate leaders have decided to lobby instead for an even bigger tax giveaway. A repatriation holiday is essentially a temporary tax exemption for corporations’ offshore profits. Some corporate leaders think they can obtain a permanent tax exemption for offshore profits — a territorial tax system, in other words — and they think that enactment of a repatriation holiday would distract from that goal.

The Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Dave Camp, agrees with the corporate leaders who prefer a territorial system (the bigger tax giveaway) to a repatriation holiday. But he has not ruled anything out.

Photo via Pro Publica Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0