What the President Really Said about Business Tax Reform



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If lawmakers and the media are confused about the President’s recent proposal to enact a business tax reform tied to a jobs program, it’s because the White House has not explained it very well. The President’s plan has been depicted by some as a major shift away from his long-held position that tax reform affecting corporations (and possibly other types of businesses) should be revenue-neutral.

That’s all wrong. What the President just proposed is not much different from his previous proposals. If the President really had shifted away from his previous position and declared that corporations should contribute more to fund public investments on a permanent basis, we’d be a lot happier about it. But that’s not what the President has said. If anything, his “new” proposal is more of a clarification than a shift in policy.

(See our previous blog post describing the President’s proposal.)

President Obama has consistently said that business tax reform should be “revenue-neutral,” meaning loopholes and special breaks would be eliminated but the revenue savings would all be used to offset a reduction in tax rates paid by corporations, so that, overall, corporations would not pay more than they do today. The fact sheet released by the White House yesterday still describes his approach to reform as “revenue-neutral.”

All that’s changed is that the President acknowledged that some of the revenue raised from eliminating loopholes and special breaks might be temporary, meaning it would only show up in the first few years or so. This temporary revenue increase cannot be used to pay for anything that is permanent (like the reductions in tax rates). Instead, the White House argues, reasonably, that a temporary revenue increase should be used to pay for something that is temporary. The President proposes to use this temporary revenue to fund a temporary jobs program.

Not counting this temporary revenue increase (which might only appear in the first decade or so after a tax overhaul is enacted) the President’s approach would be revenue-neutral. So the President’s approach still falls short of the “revenue-positive” corporate tax reform that CTJ and others organizations have called for.

The President did not elaborate on possible temporary revenue increases, but here’s an example of how it might work. We have argued that businesses, particularly those set up as corporations, often benefit entirely too much from accelerated depreciation and that this does not help our economy. Accelerated depreciation consists of businesses taking deductions for investments in equipment much more quickly than the equipment actually wears out. If Congress repeals or limits accelerated depreciation, that means businesses will have to take these deductions over a longer period of time. They’ll pay more early on, but less in later years because these deductions are spread out over a longer period of time.

This means that some of the revenue raised by repealing or limiting accelerated depreciation simply represents a timing shift. Taxes are paid during this decade that would otherwise be paid in the next decade. On the other hand, some of the revenue increase we see in the first decade would be permanent, occurring again in the next decade and the decade after.

If lawmakers want to offset a permanent reduction in tax rates, only the permanent part of this revenue increase can be used for that. Otherwise the reform will be “revenue-negative,” meaning it loses revenue, in the second decade or third decade after it’s enacted.

There are other types of changes that can lead to timing shifts, resulting in a larger revenue increase in the first decade than in the second or third decade after reform is enacted. For example, if Congress enacts some sort of tax on profits that corporations have accumulated offshore, then part of the resulting revenue gain would be temporary because some of those profits would have been repatriated and taxed at a later date under the current rules. (Keep in mind that here we’re talking about a mandatory tax of some sort on offshore profits, not the sort that would be paid under a “repatriation holiday” for corporations to choose to bring profits back to the U.S. — that sort of proposal loses revenue.)

None of this was explained in the President’s speech on this topic or in the fact sheet released by the White House, but rather was mentioned when Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, explained to reporters that “That money can’t responsibly be used to lower rates because it doesn’t sustain itself.”

So the only new development is that the White House has acknowledged that some of the revenue increase that comes from closing corporate tax loopholes would be temporary and therefore should be used to fund something temporary rather than permanent rate cuts. CTJ’s longstanding view has been that corporations should contribute more on a permanent basis to support the public investments that make this nation prosperous — and that make their profits possible. That’s why we see the President’s proposal as only a slight improvement over his previous one.

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