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A group of so far undisclosed corporations are forming a lobbying coalition called Let’s Invest for Tomorrow (LIFT) to press Congress to enact a “territorial” tax system. The coalition should be named Let’s Invest Elsewhere (LIE), because that’s exactly what American multinational corporations would be encouraged to do under a territorial tax system.
A “territorial” tax system is a euphemism to describe a tax system that exempts offshore corporate profits from the U.S. corporate tax.
U.S. corporations are already allowed to “defer” (delay indefinitely) paying U.S. taxes on their offshore profits until those profits are brought back to the U.S. This creates an incentive for U.S. corporations to shift operations (and jobs) offshore or just disguise their U.S. profits as offshore profits so that U.S. taxes can be deferred. Completely exempting those offshore profits from U.S. taxes would obviously increase the incentives to shift jobs and profits offshore.
A CTJ report from 2011 explains these problems in detail and concludes that Congress should move in the opposite direction by ending “deferral” rather than adopting a territorial tax system. The stakes are getting higher each year as U.S. corporations hold larger and larger stashes of profits offshore. (A recent CTJ paper finds that 290 of the Fortune 500 have reported their profits held offshore, which collectively reached $1.6 trillion at the end of 2011.)
The Public Opposes Territorial Tax Proposals – But Will Congress Listen?
In a world where politicians actually did what voters wanted, we would not have to worry that this coalition might actually succeed in its goal of bringing about a territorial tax system, which the public would clearly oppose.
For example, a survey taken in January of 2013 asked respondents, “Do you approve or disapprove of allowing corporations to not pay any U.S. taxes on profits that they earn in foreign countries?” 73 percent of respondents said they “disapprove” and 57 percent said they “strongly disapprove.” The same survey found that 83 percent of respondents approved (including 59 percent who strongly approved) of a proposal to “Increase tax on U.S. corporations’ overseas profits to ensure it is as much as tax on their U.S. profits.”
And yet, it’s unclear that lawmakers are paying attention to the interests or opinions of ordinary Americans.
It is true that Vice President Biden went out of his way at the Democratic National Convention to criticize the territorial system proposed by Mitt Romney. And it’s also true that the “framework” for corporate tax reform released by the White House in February of 2012 refused to endorse a territorial system.
But the framework only rejected a “pure territorial system.” CTJ pointed out that the time that probably no country has a “pure territorial system,” so this does not provide much assurance or guidance.
Meanwhile, it has long been rumored that many of the Democratic members of the Senate Finance Committee (the Senate’s tax-writing committee) favor a territorial system.
Republican lawmakers, for their part, have long fully endorsed a territorial system. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp made public his proposals for a territorial system in October 2011. That very day, CTJ released a letter signed by several national labor unions, small business associations and good government groups opposing Camp’s move, but the response from lawmakers was relatively muted.
Perhaps more disturbing, at his recent confirmation hearings, the new Treasury Secretary, Jack Lew, appeared open to the idea of a territorial system.
Similar Corporate Lobbying Coalition Failed to Get a Temporary Exemption for Offshore Profits (Repatriation Holiday)
Some readers will remember that during 2011 and 2012 a group of corporations calling itself WIN America pushed for an tax amnesty for offshore profits (which they preferred to call a “repatriation holiday.”) The coalition was made up of companies who believed that Congress might not be naïve enough to give them the much bigger prize, a territorial system. As explained in a CTJ fact sheet, a repatriation holiday would temporarily exempt offshore profits from U.S. taxes, while a territorial system would permanently exempt those offshore profits from U.S. taxes, and would therefore cause even greater problems.
WIN America did give up and disband. But that could be largely because influential lawmakers like Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp are indicating that the bigger prize, a territorial system, is within reach.
Complexity Helps the Lobbyists and Lawmakers Who Hope the Public Does Not Catch On
It may be that politicians remain open to tax proposals that the public hates because the issues involved are so complicated that they believe no one is paying attention. This makes it vital to call attention to the effects a territorial system would have on ordinary Americans.
The issues are admittedly complicated. For example, Americans have been presented over and over with a very simple story about how the U.S. has a corporate tax that is more burdensome than the corporate taxes of other countries, and that our companies need new rules that make them “competitive” with global competitors.
The reality is very different and much more complicated. While the U.S. has a relatively high statutory tax rate for corporations, the U.S. corporate tax has so many loopholes that most major multinational corporations seem to be paying a lower effective tax rate in the U.S. than they pay in the other countries where they have operations. CTJ’s major 2011 report on corporate taxes studied most of the profitable Fortune 500 companies and found (on pages 10-11) that among those with significant offshore profits (making up a tenth or more of their overall profits) two-thirds actually paid a lower effective tax rate in the U.S. than in the other countries where they operated.
On the other hand, there are a number of countries that have extremely low corporate tax rates or no corporate tax at all – mostly very small countries with little actual business activity – where U.S. companies like to claim their profits are generated, in order to avoid U.S. taxes. These are the offshore tax havens that exploit the rule allowing U.S. corporations to “defer” U.S. taxes on their offshore profits. If the U.S. completely exempts these profits from U.S. taxes (in other words, enacts a territorial system) these incentives will be greatly increased.
This is confirmed by a recent report from the Congressional Research Service finding that in 2008, American multinational companies reported earning 43 percent of their $940 billion in overseas profits in the five very small tax-haven countries, even though only four percent of their foreign workforce and seven percent of their foreign investments were in these countries. In contrast, the five “traditional economies,” where American companies had 40 percent of their foreign workers and 34 percent of their foreign investments, accounted for only 14 percent of American multinationals’ reported overseas’ profits.
These statistics are outrageous and demonstrate that U.S. corporations are engaging in various accounting tricks in order to make it appear (for tax purposes) that their profits are generated in countries where they won’t be taxed. The LIFT coalition will count on the fact that this is simply too difficult for ordinary people to understand – which makes educating the public about this more important than ever.