Debate Debrief: What Romney and Obama Got Wrong on Business Taxes



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While most commentators have focused on the back-and-forth between President Barack Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney over tax rates and deficit reduction during the first presidential debate, we paid extra close attention to what the candidates said about corporate and small business taxes. Unfortunately, we found what both candidates had to say really wanting.

Corporate Tax Reform

Early in the debate, Obama noted that he and Romney have something of a consensus over corporate taxes in that they both believe that “our corporate tax rate is too high.” If there's such an agreement, it's based on a fundamental misunderstanding. While the U.S. has a relatively high statutory corporate tax rate of 35 percent, the effective corporate tax rate (the percentage of profits that corporations actually pay in taxes) is far lower because of the loopholes they use to shield their profits from taxes. CTJ has found that large profitable corporations pay about half the statutory rate on average, while some companies like General Electric and Verizon pay nothing at all in corporate taxes.

President Obama proposes to close corporate tax loopholes, but would give the revenue savings right back to corporations as a reduction in the statutory tax rate from 35 percent to 28 percent, resulting in no change in revenue, as outlined in his corporate tax reform framework released earlier this year. (During the debate Obama actually said he’d lower the statutory rate to 25 percent, which seems more likely a misstatement than an intentional policy shift.)

In contrast, 250 non-profits, consumer groups, labor unions and faith-based groups have called for a corporate tax reform that actually raises revenue in order to pay for critical government investments and reduce the budget deficit.

Of course, Governor Romney also proposes a deep cut in the statutory corporate tax rate (to 25 percent) and is far more vague on whether he would bother to offset the costs.

Romney took issue with Obama’s claim during the debate that the tax code currently allows companies to take a deduction for moving plants overseas, saying that he had “no idea” what Obama was talking about and that if such a deduction really exists that he may “need to get a new accountant.” Technically, Obama is right that the tax code currently allows companies to take a deduction for business expenses of moving a plant overseas, but he leaves out the fact that companies are allowed to deduct most business expenses, including those associated with moving facilities. In any case, Romney certainly does not to need to hire a new accountant.

What both candidates missed during this discussion was that our current tax system does in fact encourage corporations to move operations overseas by allowing them to defer taxes on foreign profits. To his credit, Obama proposed, as part of his 2013 budget and in his framework for corporate tax reform, several reforms to the international tax system that would reduce the size of this tax break, although he has not gone as far as to call for an end to deferral entirely. In contrast, Romney wants to blow a giant hole in our corporate tax by moving the US to territorial tax system, under which US companies would pay nothing on offshore profits.

Small Business Taxes

During the debate Romney revived a classic tax myth by claiming that allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire for income over $250,000 will harm small businesses because a lot of businesses “are taxed not at the corporate tax rate, but at the individual rate.” Obama pushed back noting that he had “lowered taxes for small businesses 18 times” and that under his plan “97 percent of small businesses would not see their income taxes go up.”

A Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ) analysis found that only the 3 to 5 percent richest business owners would be lose any their tax breaks under Obama’s plan. The CTJ report also points out that if you’re a business owner, tax breaks affect how much of your profits you can take home, but not whether or not you have profits. A business owner will make investments that create jobs if, and only if, such investments will lead to profits, regardless of what tax rates apply.

In an attempt to push his small business claim even further, Romney cited a study by the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) claiming that Obama’s plan will force small business to cut 700,000 jobs. When the NFIB report came out during the summer, the White House did a fine job of pointing out the many, many outrageous distortions in the report. Just to take one, the NFIB report makes assumptions about the relationship between taxes and investment that are far out of line with those of the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office and even the Treasury Department during the Bush administration.

Oil and Gas Tax Breaks

President Obama stated that the oil industry receives “$4 billion a year in corporate welfare” and added that he didn’t think anyone believes that a corporation like ExxonMobil really needs extra money coming from the government. Romney hit back saying that the tax break for oil companies is only $2.8 billion a year and that Obama had enacted $90 billion worth of tax breaks in one year for green energy, which he said dwarfed the oil tax breaks 50 times over.

On the oil company tax break claims, Obama’s figure is much closer to the truth. The President’s 2013 budget has a package of provisions that would eliminate or reduce special tax breaks for the fossil fuel industry and the Treasury estimates this would raise $39 billion over a decade. (See page 80 of this budget document.) A CTJ report explains the arguments for these provisions. Ironically, the oil industry itself puts this number much higher, claiming that the Obama administration’s proposal would eliminate about $8.5 billion in tax breaks it receives annually.

In addition, FactCheck.org points out that Romney’s claims on Obama’s clean energy tax breaks were largely bogus. Just to list some of the problems with Romney’s $90 billion claim, FactCheck.org notes that these breaks were spent over two years not one, that the figure includes loan guarantees not just actual spending, and that many of these “breaks” were spent on infrastructure projects.

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