A revealing new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that in 2011, the US government spent as much on corporate tax expenditures as it collected in corporate taxes. According to the report, 80 tax expenditures (exceptions, deductions, credits, preferential rates, etc.), cost the Treasury $181 billion in corporate tax revenue, which is the same as the total amount the Treasury collected in corporate taxes in 2011.
While the study looked at 80 corporate tax expenditures, over three-quarters of the revenue loses ($136 billion) were attributed to the four largest expenditures: accelerated depreciation, deferral of foreign income, the research credit, and the domestic production activities deduction. (CTJ has explained before that repealing these provisions would raise massive amounts of revenue.)
Making matters worse, 56 of the 80 tax expenditures that GAO looked at were used by individuals as well as corporations, resulting in an additional loss of $125 billion in revenue from the individual income tax. This happens because many corporate tax breaks can be used by businesses taxed under the individual income tax (the personal income tax), such as partnerships, S-corporations and other “pass-through” entities.
The report also revealed that more is spent on corporate tax expenditures in the budget areas of Commerce and Housing, International Affairs, and General Purpose Fiscal Assistance than is spent in direct federal outlays. For example, GAO found that the government spends only $45.7 billion in direct federal outlays for International Affairs, while spending $50.8 billion on corporate tax expenditures on this same budget function. Similarly, GAO concluded that one-third of the corporate only tax expenditures “appear to share a similar purpose with at least one federal spending program.”
These expenditures account for major U.S. corporations paying an average effective tax rate of half the 35 percent statutory rate, and often even zero in federal income taxes; elimination of these tax breaks should be the top priority for lawmakers looking to replace the sequester or reduce the deficit. In fact, a coalition of 515 groups recently called on Congress to repeal or reduce corporate tax expenditures as a way to raise revenue (as opposed to enacting corporate tax reform that is “revenue-neutral”). As Representative Lloyd Doggett (R-TX), who requested the GAO study, explained, “Corporate America did not contribute a nickel to the fiscal cliff deal that meant higher taxes for many Americans [and] it is reasonable to ask corporate America to contribute a little more toward closing the budget gap and to the cost of our national security.”
These corporate tax expenditures get nothing like the public scrutiny that direct spending is subject to. But tax expenditures for corporations are just like subsidies provided to corporations in the form of direct spending because Americans have to make up the costs somehow. That’s true whether it’s that bundle of earmark-like tax extenders that gets quietly renewed every year or two, or the rule allowing corporations to indefinitely defer taxes on foreign profits, or the massive breaks for depreciating equipment. All this is the spending of ordinary taxpayers’ dollars – and it merits the same critical attention.