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In a Tax Notes article published Monday, Harvard Law School professor Stephen E. Shay bemoans the recent wave of corporate inversions and suggests that if Congress does not take legislative action, the Obama Administration could take regulatory action to prevent them.
No longer an arcane term, a corporate inversion is when a U.S. company merges with a foreign company and, for tax purposes, subsequently restructures to claim the address of the foreign company as its headquarters even while maintaining operations in the United States. This practice has made headlines lately in part because inversions are another way for companies to avoid U.S. taxes and in part because of the volume of large companies who have announced plans to do so.
Shay, a former tax lawyer for the Obama Administration, made headlines because he said the Treasury Department could stop inversions by using its regulatory powers rather than waiting for Congress to enact changes in the tax laws. Specifically, Shay argued that Treasury could prevent inverted companies from taking interest deductions against their U.S. profits, and could also make it harder for inverted companies to bring their offshore cash back to the United States tax-free.
It probably doesn’t matter much whether Shay is technically correct. His assertion is contrary to Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew’s recent assessment that the Obama Administration simply doesn’t have the authority to prevent inversions through regulatory action. And, of course, in the face of House Speaker John Boehner’s recent effort to bring suit against the Obama administration for allegedly “encroach[ing] on Congress’s power to write the laws,” any effort by the Treasury Department to end inversions by administrative fiat likely would create a firestorm of criticism.
Critically needed revenue is at stake. Executive action on inversions would be welcome but is no substitute for legislative action.
In any case, if neither the Obama administration nor its congressional foes think highly of an administrative approach to ending inversions, Shay’s recommendations are unlikely to see the light of day anytime soon.
To be clear, federal regulations are a vital component to every tax reform effort. Every day in Washington and the states, tax administrators must find ways to implement tax laws enacted by lawmakers. These laws are often poorly specified or even internally contradictory, and it’s up to the Treasury Department and their state equivalents to write regulations that translate these laws into a properly functioning tax system.
In fact, just in the past week we’ve identified two other areas in which clearer and better-enforced regulations could help to achieve corporate tax reform: requiring more complete disclosure of corporations’ foreign subsidiaries , and requiring companies with offshore profits to admit whether those profits are being held in foreign tax havens. These are important steps, and it’s entirely within the authority of federal regulators to make these changes.
But whenever the proper scope of this federal regulatory power is murky, the best approach is for Congress to clarify the laws rather than having tax administrators attempt to interpret the laws.
Shay’s ideas should be taken seriously. If the current regulations governing corporate inversions are too poorly specified to do the job they are supposed to do, the Treasury Department should rewrite them. But administrative or executive action is not the only answer. Congress could eliminate any uncertainty about whether Shay’s specific recommendations are within Treasury’s powers by taking immediate legislative action. And as we’ve noted, President Obama has laid out a very straightforward set of reforms that could halt inversions.