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New Report from CTJ Explains the Right Way to Reform Corporate Tax – and Why the Amnesty Is the Worst Possible Change

Corporate leaders are conducting a massive campaign for what amounts to a tax amnesty for corporate profits shifted out of the United States, especially profits shifted to offshore tax havens.

In 2004, Congress approved this sort of holiday, which allowed U.S. corporations that brought offshore profits to the U.S. to pay U.S. taxes at a rate of just 5.25 percent instead of the normal 35 percent. Corporate leaders claimed they would use the money brought back to create jobs, but several empirical studies found that the holiday did not lead to job creation, and many of the companies that benefited actually reduced their U.S. employment. The money was largely put towards stock repurchases, effectively putting it in the hands of shareholders.

Washington Resists the Repatriation Holiday — But for How Long?

During the debate over the economic recovery act in early 2009, Senator Barbara Boxer offered an amendment to provide another repatriation holiday. Concluding that the 2004 holiday was a corporate giveaway that enriched shareholders without creating jobs, most Senators opposed the Boxer measure, which failed by a vote of 42-55.

The Obama administration reiterated that it opposes a repatriation holiday — unless it is part of a comprehensive corporate tax reform. In another blow to proponents of the holiday, the leading Republicans of the Congressional tax-writing committees said the same thing.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce Admits that Job-Creation Rules Attached to Tax Holiday Won’t Work

Some lawmakers who support a repatriation holiday argue that the conditions attached to the 2004 measure could be strengthened in a second holiday so that companies cannot benefit without creating jobs or otherwise directly investing in their U.S. operations. 

But this argument is so weak that even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce openly rejects it. At a panel discussion organized by Tax Analysts, Martin Regalia, a senior vice president for the Chamber, said that because money is fungible, you cannot really direct a company to do any particular thing with cash it receives.

Regalia said that the case for a repatriation holiday is that it’s good for America when a company brings offshore profits back to the U.S., even if the profits go directly to shareholders.

Regalia did not use the more recognizable terms that describe this type of thinking, perhaps because it is so widely discredited: Trickle-down economics, or supply-side economics.

Democratic Insiders Hired to Promote the Amnesty for Corporate Tax Dodgers

With all this going against the repatriation holiday, why do the corporations think they can win? Because this time they are far more organized and are devoting far more resources to lobbying. They have effectively bought off some highly influential Democratic insiders, as well as Republican insiders. The coalition in favor of the holiday includes Adobe, Apple, Cisco, Google, Kodak, Microsoft, Pfizer, Oracle and others. A Business Week article explains:

The team’s chief communications strategist is Anita Dunn, the Democratic media consultant who served as President Barack Obama’s interim communications director during his first year in office… The lead lobbyists are former Representative Jim McCrery of Louisiana, who was the ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means committee, and Jeffrey A. Forbes, the former chief of staff to Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.).  

New Report from CTJ Explains What Congress Should Do Instead

A new report from Citizens for Tax Justice explains that Congress should adopt a system that taxes all profits of U.S. corporations, no matter where they are earned. U.S. corporations would continue to get a credit, as they do now, for any taxes they pay to a foreign government, to avoid double-taxation. (The comprehensive tax reform offered last year by Senators Ron Wyden and Judd Gregg would do this.)

In this system, U.S. corporations would never have a tax-related reason not to repatriate their offshore profits because those profits would already be subject to U.S. taxes anyway.

In theory, the U.S. does have a “worldwide” tax system in which all profits of a U.S. corporation are subject to U.S. taxes, but it undermines this rule by allowing U.S. corporations to “defer” their U.S. taxes on offshore profits until those profits are brought to the United States (until those profits are “repatriated”). Deferral provides an incentive for corporations to move jobs overseas and to shift profits to offshore tax havens.

Many corporate leaders want Congress to permanently exempt offshore profits (adopt a “territorial” system, in other words) but that would only increase the incentives to shift jobs and profits offshore. So would allowing corporate leaders to believe that Congress will call off almost all of the U.S. taxes on offshore profits every few years with a repatriation holiday.

Repatriation Holiday Provides Greatest Benefits to the Worst Corporate Tax Dodgers

The CTJ report also explains that a repatriation holiday provides the greatest benefits to corporations that engage in the very worst tax avoidance. Multinational corporations that are conducting real business offshore and paying taxes to a foreign government have much less to gain from a repatriation holiday. On the other hand, a company that has shifted profits to a Cayman Islands subsidiary that conducts no real business and pays no foreign taxes would benefit enormously.