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Some U.S. lawmakers on Tuesday used a pair of hearings in the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee to showboat for corporate special interests and oppose a growing worldwide movement to crack down on international tax avoidance.
Last month, leaders of the 20 largest economies in the world approved an action plan developed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that, if implemented, could help ensure that multinational corporations pay their fair share in taxes. Rather than embracing the OECD’s ideas, some lawmakers claimed that the plan would actually harm the U.S. tax base. During the House hearing, Rep. Mike Kelly (R-PA) alleged that countries are looking to pick the pocket of U.S. companies.
In reality, the U.S. government and the American public have the most to gain by enacting the OECD measures and leading the way in cracking down on corporate tax avoidance schemes. A recent report by international tax expert Kimberly Clausing found that the U.S. loses more revenue than any other country to offshore corporate tax avoidance. By her count, the U.S. lost $93.8 billion in revenue in 2012, representing about a third of all the revenue lost to international corporate tax avoidance. Similarly, a joint report by CTJ and U.S. PIRG found that members of the Fortune 500 were avoiding a stunning $620 billion in taxes by holding $2.1 trillion in earnings offshore.
The OECD action plan was born out of the dire budget constraints that governments faced after the international financial crisis. Following the crisis, activists and lawmakers throughout the world became outraged by the low tax rates many multinational corporations were paying at the same time that low-income individuals continued to face harsh austerity measures. The G-20 charged the OECD with developing a framework for international cooperation between countries to stop the “base erosion and profit shifting” (aka BEPS) that allow corporations to avoid paying taxes.
After a two-year process of research and discussion, the OECD released the details of a 15 point BEPS action plan in early October. Some of the best proposed measures in the action plan include action 2’s measures targeting hybrid mismatch arrangements, action 4’s proposal to limit excessive interest deductions and action 13’s proposal for country-by-country reporting of profits and tax information. While action 13 is a good step forward in that it would require country-by-country reporting of information to governments, this provision should be made substantially stronger in the future by requiring that companies make this information publically available.
Showing their backward approach to these issues, some lawmakers have argued that the best solution to offshore tax avoidance is to enlarge the existing loopholes and to enact massive new ones. For example, House Tax Policy Subcommittee Chairman Charles Boustany (R-LA) has called for the U.S. to move to a territorial tax system and a patent box. These measures would result in the loss of hundreds of billions of dollars in tax revenue and result in an unprecedented erosion in the U.S. corporate tax base.
The OECD plan represents a growing consensus on international tax avoidance, and the U.S. should certainly support it. But Congress does not need the international community to act now to stop tax avoidance by U.S. multinationals and raise much needed revenue.
The best way to shut down offshore shenanigans once and for all would be for Congress to end the deferral of U.S. taxes on foreign profits by requiring that companies pay the same tax rate at the same time on their foreign and domestic profits. Barring that, Congress could pass the Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act, which takes aim at a number of the worse gaps in the offshore tax system. Given that countries throughout the world are acting to curb offshore tax avoidance, now is the perfect time for the U.S. to keep pace.