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Congress Should Reject “Tax Extenders” Legislation that Mostly Benefits Corporations Unless Corporate Tax Loopholes Are Closed to Offset the Costs

The Senate committee with jurisdiction over taxes has announced that it will take up legislation called the “tax extenders” (legislation extending several tax breaks mostly benefiting corporations) that could undo half of the savings achieved through the much-debated “sequestration,” or automatic spending cuts.

This comes just weeks after the Senate failed to provide any extension of emergency unemployment benefits until it was agreed that the costs would be fully offset to avoid any increase in the deficit.

The package of provisions that Capitol Hill insiders call the “tax extenders,” which the Senate Finance Committee will take up the week of March 31, includes tax breaks that are officially temporary (mostly in effect for two years) but are effectively permanent because Congress routinely extends them without any debate or oversight whatsoever.

The last extension of these breaks was tucked into the deal that Congress approved on New Year’s Day of 2013 to address the “fiscal cliff” of expiring tax breaks. Before that it was tucked into the legislation enacted in late 2010 to extend all the Bush-era tax breaks for two years. Before that it was tucked into the legislation that created TARP (the bank bailout), which was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2008. Congress has never offset the costs of these tax breaks.

While Congress has been generous in providing subsidies to corporations through the tax code, it has taken a very different approach to providing subsidies in the form of direct spending, especially when it would benefit working people. Most mainstream economists believe that governments should not cut spending when their economies are still climbing out of recessions, but that’s pretty much exactly what Congress did by approving the 2011 law resulting in sequestration (automatic spending cuts) of about $109 billion each year for a decade.

The resulting cuts in public investments like Head Start and medical research caused widespread public outcry. But even the deal that Rep. Paul Ryan and Senator Patty Murray struck in December to undo some of the damage eliminates less than half of the sequestration for 2014 and a much smaller portion in 2015.

The Ryan-Murray deal undid $63 billion of sequestration over two years. The last time Congress enacted the tax extenders (extending tax breaks for two years) the cost was over $71 billion. Figures from the Congressional Budget Office show that if the tax extenders are never allowed to expire, they will cost at least $450 billion over the next decade (and over $700 billion if the package includes more recent breaks for writing off business equipment).

In this deficit-obsessed environment, it would be logical for Congress to refuse to enact any corporate tax breaks unless they can also offset the costs by ending other corporate tax breaks or tax loopholes. Otherwise, Congress should do something it has never done — vote down the tax extenders.

Tax Extenders Legislation Provides More Harm than Help to the Economy

It would be different if the tax breaks included in this legislation were helpful to the economy. But they are mostly wasteful subsidies for businesses with no obvious benefit to America.

The most costly provision among the “tax extenders” would extend the research credit. As a report from CTJ explains, this break is supposed to encourage companies to perform research but appears to subsidize activities that are not what any normal person would call research (like redesigning packaging for food). It also subsidizes activities that businesses would carry out in the absence of any tax break — including activities that businesses performed years before claiming the credit.

The third most costly provision among the tax extenders would extend the seemingly arcane “active financing exception,” which expands the ability of corporations to avoid taxes on their “offshore” profits and which General Electric publicly acknowledges as one of the ways it avoids federal taxes.

Next in line is the deduction for state and local sales taxes. Lawmakers from states without an income tax are especially keen to extend this provision so that their constituents will be able to deduct their sales taxes on their federal income tax returns. But, as CTJ has explained, most of those constituents do not itemize their deductions and therefore receive no help from this provision. Most of the benefits go to relatively well-off people in those states.

Even those few provisions that seem like they would help ordinary families are mostly bad policy. For example, the deduction for postsecondary tuition and related fees seems, on its surface, like a nice idea, but CTJ has explained that it’s actually the most regressive of all the tax breaks for postsecondary education. In other words, this break is targeted more to the well-off than any other education tax break, as illustrated in the graph below.

There simply is no provision among the “tax extenders” that justifies Congress enacting this enormous, costly package once again without asking corporations to pay for it.