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But instead of taking steps to halt this brazen tax dodging, lawmakers have floated various misguided “reform” proposals that would actually reward these companies’ bad behavior. Whether it’s the territorial tax system proposed by a Senate working group last week or the repatriation tax breaks frequently proposed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, many tax writers appear oddly intent on lavishing more tax cuts on corporate tax dodgers rather than making them pay their fair share.
As a new Citizens for Tax Justice report makes clear, there are two major problems with the repatriation proposals discussed in recent months. Foremost, none of these proposals address the core problem: corporations can legally stash profits offshore with no consequence by taking advantage of a provision in our tax laws known as deferral. Second, Congress has been down this road once before eleven years ago, when a one-time repatriation holiday proved a boon for corporations but failed to abate offshore tax avoidance.
CTJ has written extensively about how deferral provides an incentive for corporations to play offshore shell games. Many large U.S.-based multinational corporations avoid paying U.S. taxes on significant profits by using accounting tricks to make revenue earned in the United States appear to be generated in corporate subsidiaries based in tax haven countries with minimal or no taxes.
Some lawmakers have railed against this practice while others claim businesses are forced to be bad corporate citizens due to the U.S. corporate tax rate. With such disparate views, it’s no wonder that Congress has a poor track record in dealing with offshore corporate tax dodging.
In 2004, faced with the prospect of huge multinationals shifting their profits into beach-island tax havens, Congress offered them a carrot: corporations that repatriated their offshore profits could pay a low 5.25 percent tax rate on those profits, far below the 35 percent corporate tax rate our tax system normally requires. A number of corporations cheerfully took the carrot—and promptly resumed shifting their U.S. profits into foreign tax havens the following year. Furthermore, instead of using this boon to create jobs and invest in research and development, businesses laid off workers and used the tax break to enrich corporate executives.
Eleven years later, the problem of offshore tax avoidance is coming to a head once again, but there’s no reason to believe another repatriation holiday would yield a different outcome.
Fortune 500 corporations now have declared over $2.1 trillion of their profits to be “indefinitely reinvested” abroad. The scale of this income shifting is ludicrous: a CTJ report found that U.S. corporations reported to the IRS that the profits their subsidiaries earned in 2010 in Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands, the Bahamas and Luxembourg were greater than the entire gross domestic product (GDP) of those nations that year. In the Cayman Islands alone, U.S. multinationals claimed they earned $51 billion in profits in 2010, a year in which the entire economic output of the Caymans was only $3 billion.
But as CTJ’s new repatriation report outlines, neither political party’s leadership is pushing sensible ideas on how to deal with this scam. Congressional tax writers, incredibly, are once again backing a repatriation holiday. At a time when bipartisanship is a rarity on Capitol Hill, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Rand Paul (R-KY) are reaching across the aisle to offer a 6.5 percent tax holiday to companies that agree to repatriate their offshore cash.
Things aren’t much better in the White House, where President Barack Obama earlier this year included a “deemed repatriation” in his 2016 budget. Obama’s plan wouldn’t even require companies to bring their profits back—instead, he would apply a one-time tax to their offshore profits, also at a special low rate.
If Congress adopts either of these as stand-alone strategies, one thing is certain: big corporations will continue their long-standing charade of pretending their U.S. profits are earned in foreign tax havens. Neither of these reforms on their own would remove the harmful incentive for companies to play these offshore shell games.
But there is an option that could stop income-shifting cold. If lawmakers simply end tax deferral for offshore profits, corporations would find no tax advantage in pretending their profits were earned in a Caribbean island. But as long as our tax laws allow corporations to indefinitely avoid their income tax responsibilities by going through this pretence, they will continue to do so. All the “holidays” Congress can dream up will do nothing to stop it.