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The U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) ain’t what it used to be. That’s the obvious conclusion to draw from Thursday’s hearing on the “Impact of the U.S. Tax Code on the Market for Corporate Control and Jobs.”
Two years ago, the PSI, under the leadership of Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), issued detailed investigative reports exposing the egregious tax avoidance practiced by Apple and Microsoft. But the committee’s new leaders are taking an entirely different tack. Committee chairman Rob Portman (R-OH), after listening sympathetically to corporate whining about the nation’s allegedly burdensome corporate tax system, lamented that “if there’s a villain in this story it’s the U.S. tax code.” This was in response to testimony from a number of corporate spokespeople who presented inaccurate pictures of how the tax code treats their companies.
A more critical audience (or a reader of CTJ’s recent memo to the PSI published in advance of yesterday’s hearing) might have drawn different conclusions from yesterday’s testimony. One invited witness, Boston Beer executive Jim Koch, complained that his company pays “a tax rate of about 38 percent” on its U.S. profits. A closer examination, however, shows that Koch’s estimate is hugely inflated.
To be sure, Boston Beer’s 2014 annual report does assert that its current and deferred federal and state income taxes were 38 percent of its U.S. income. But that figure is a fiction, for two reasons.
First, a large share of these so-called taxes were “deferred,” meaning that the company has not yet paid them, and may never do so. Second, Boston Beer benefitted handsomely from a tax break for executive stock options that, for arcane accounting reasons, is not reflected as a tax reduction in companies’ annual reports. Making these two adjustments shows that Boston Beer’s actual federal and state effective tax rate was only 15 percent.
This week’s PSI hearing confirms the analysis of Bloomberg reporters Jesse Drucker and Richard Rubin, who noted earlier this week that the new leadership of the PSI appears far more interested in investigating the U.S. government than in chasing down corporate tax dodgers. That’s a real shame.
Tax avoidance thrives on opacity, and the PSI’s previous in-depth investigations of convoluted international tax schemes brought to light important details of the tax dodges that real reform would bring to an end. The PSI’s new leadership would do well to follow the example set by Sen. Levin. But so far, it seems unlikely that they will do so.