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Republican House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp called the Chief Financial Officers of four different corporations to testify in favor of a “territorial” tax system on Thursday.
A territorial system exempts offshore profits of U.S. corporations from U.S. taxes. American corporations can already “defer” their U.S. taxes on offshore profits until those profits are repatriated (brought back to the U.S.). This creates incentives to move operations (and jobs) offshore and also creates incentives to shift profits offshore by disguising U.S. profits as “foreign” profits.
A territorial system would increase these incentives because U.S. taxes on offshore profits would be eliminated (not just deferred).
The hearing occurred just days after Republican House Speaker John Boehner spoke in favor of a territorial tax system. Boehner’s comment came at the same event where he announced that he would prefer the U.S. to default on its debt obligations unless trillions of dollars are cut from spending.
The Problems with a PERMANENT Exemption for Offshore Profits
Among the tax experts who testified before the Ways and Means Committee was Jane Gravelle with the Congressional Research Service. She explained that a territorial tax system is not efficient because it encourages investment to flow to any countries that have lower tax rates rather than creating an even playing field. Reduced investment in the U.S. would result in fewer jobs and lower wages.
A territorial system would also, she argued, worsen the problem of offshore profit-shifting by corporations.
Our tax system can either be “residence-based,” meaning U.S. taxes are paid by any taxpayer (including corporations) that resides in the U.S., or it can be “source-based,” meaning a taxpayer pays U.S. taxes only to the extent that the U.S. is the source of its income.
Gravelle argued that it’s much easier for a company to move its profits to another country (change the “source” of its income) than it is to move its headquarters to another country (change its “residence.”) That means a “source-based” system (a territorial tax system) makes it much easier for U.S. corporations to change their behavior in ways to avoid U.S. taxes than a “residence-based” system would.
The U.S.’s corporate tax system right now is a hybrid between a “residence-based” system and a “source-based” system. To adopt a true residence-based system, Congress would need to repeal the rule allowing U.S. corporations to “defer” U.S. taxes on their offshore profits. This is a reform that has been endorsed by Citizens for Tax Justice, and Gravelle said that it would be simpler to administer.
The Problems with a TEMPORARY Exemption for Offshore Profits
Some corporate leaders have argued that if Congress does not permanently exempt their offshore profits, then lawmakers should temporarily exempt them with the sort of tax holiday for repatriated corporate profits that Congress enacted in 2004.
Several studies of the 2004 effort showed that the repatriated profits went to shareholders and not to job-creation, despite the promises made by corporate lobbyists. An economist with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently admitted that any attempt by Congress to attach job-creation requirements to the tax holiday simply will not work.
Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) introduced a bill (H.R. 1834) on Wednesday to provide another repatriation holiday. (See related story.)
Not all corporate leaders are willing to give up the fight for a territorial system and settle for a repatriation holiday. The CFO’s testifying Thursday said that they did NOT support a repatriation holiday, because they feel that it would distract corporate America from a larger tax policy goal of enacting a territorial system.