We retired Tax Justice Blog in April 2017. For new content on issues related to tax justice, go to www.justtaxesblog.org
The nation has a number of pressing problems, and our polarized Congress all too often can’t seem to compromise on policies that would address fundamental issues that most of us care about. In this context, it seems a pending proposal by Democratic Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican senator and libertarian stalwart, would be a refreshing change from the norm. But not so much.
Unfortunately, Sens. Reid and Paul have proposed to “fund” the Highway Trust Fund with a nonsensical measure that would reward corporate tax avoidance and raise almost no revenue, according to their own description of the plan.
Policymakers know our nation’s roads are chronically underfunded. Since 2008, Congress has covered $53 billion of transportation funding shortfalls by taking needed tax dollars out of general fund revenue, and official forecasts show the need for a huge infusion of new cash to maintain our roads and bridges. There is a straightforward policy solution—increasing the federal gas tax to offset large inflationary declines over the past two decades—that requires a legislative champion.
Instead of taking the obvious step of fixing the federal gas tax, Reid and Paul propose a repatriation tax holiday, which would give multinational corporations an extremely low tax rate on offshore profits they repatriate (profits they officially bring back to the United States). The idea is that corporations would bring to the United States offshore profits they otherwise would leave abroad, and the federal government could tax those profits (albeit at an extremely low rate) and put the revenue toward the transportation fund.
The first problem with such a proposal is many of these offshore profits are clearly earned in the United States and then manipulated through accounting gimmicks so corporations appear to earn the money in countries where it won’t be taxed, as demonstrated by several recent CTJ reports. In fact, profits corporations report earning in zero-tax countries would receive the biggest breaks under a repatriation holiday because the U.S. tax normally due on repatriated profits is reduced by whatever taxes have been paid to foreign governments.
The second problem with a repatriation holiday is that Congress enacted this type of proposal in 2004, and critics have widely panned that measure as providing no increase in employment or investment but only enriching shareholders and executives.
The third problem is that it loses revenue. The non-partisan Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) has estimated that a repeat of the 2004 measure would reduce revenue by (and increase the budget deficit by) $96 billion over a decade.
According to JCT, one reason for the massive revenue loss is that some of the offshore profits would be repatriated anyway absent any new tax break, and companies would pay the full tax. Another reason is that the measure would encourage corporations to engage in even more accounting games to make their U.S. profits appear to be earned in offshore tax havens, with the expectation that a little lobbying could prod Congress to enact another repatriation holiday in a few years.
Reid and Paul have added a detail that they claim improves their proposal. They argue that companies would rather borrow money than tap profits they claim to hold “offshore.” Reid and Paul therefore propose to also limit the tax-deductibility of corporate borrowing by asserting that any business borrowing that is done for the purpose of avoiding repatriating offshore cash would be non-deductible.
It is unclear how this could possibly be implemented, but even if it works, the New York Times reports that Reid’s staff believes the net effect would raise just $3 billion over a decade. This is laughably insufficient. Replenishing the Highway Trust Fund just to maintain spending until the end of 2015 will cost $18 billion.