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In a time of fiscal austerity, it is breathtaking to learn that Congress has allowed Fortune 500 companies to avoid an estimated $620 billion in federal taxes on earnings they are holding offshore. While the inaction by lawmakers on this issue may create the impression that there is nothing to be done, the reality is that this tax avoidance could be shut down tomorrow if Congress decided to act. Making this point clear, Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan has proposed a pair of new bills this week that would substantially curtail offshore tax avoidance by U.S. multinational corporations.
To start, Rep. Pocan’s The Corporate Fair Share Tax Act takes direct aim at the driver behind the infamous corporate inversion loophole. Using this loophole, U.S. companies, like Burger King or Medtronic, merge with a smaller foreign company and then claim to be a foreign company for tax purposes. The primary advantage of this arrangement is that it allows these pretend foreign companies to engage in an accounting maneuver known as “earnings stripping,” wherein the U.S. subsidiary borrows money from its new foreign parent and then makes interest payments that have the effect of decreasing its U.S. income for tax purposes. To counter this maneuver, the The Corporate Fair Share Tax Act would no longer allow companies to deduct excess interest payments from their U.S. income. This measure would raise an estimated $64 billion in new revenue over 10 years according to the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT).
The immediate need for this kind of anti-inversion legislation has become even clearer in recent days as Pfizer, one of the nation’s largest pharmaceutical companies, has indicated that it is seeking to invert and incorporate in Ireland to avoid potentially billions in taxes that it owes. Pfizer and a handful of other companies with inversions in the works this year confirm that congressional action is still needed, despite the improvements made to the law through an executive action by the Obama Administration last year.
Rep. Pocan’s second piece of legislation, the Putting America First Corporate Tax Act, would strike a blow at the heart of the offshore tax avoidance by requiring companies to pay the same tax rate at the same time on their foreign and domestic profits. Right now, the U.S. tax system allows companies to defer paying taxes on earnings that they book abroad (at least on paper) until they officially repatriate it back to their U.S. parent company in the form of dividends. This policy creates a huge incentive for companies to shift their U.S. profits to low- or no-tax jurisdictions in order to avoid taxes. IRS data show that U.S. companies are booking more than half of their (allegedly) foreign profits in known tax havens.
Rep. Pocan’s legislation would stop this practice by ending the ability of companies to defer paying U.S. taxes on their offshore income, meaning that they would pay the same tax rate at the same time on earnings regardless of whether they are booked in the United States or in the Cayman Islands. This legislation would not only level the playing field between multinational and purely domestic companies, but according to the U.S. Treasury Department, it would raise as much as $900 billion in critically needed revenue over 10 years.
Congress should take action against offshore tax dodging and an excellent place to start would be the passage of Rep. Pocan’s The Corporate Fair Share Tax Act and Putting America First Corporate Tax Act.