New CTJ Reports Explain the Tax Provisions in President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2015 Budget Proposal
Two new reports from Citizens for Tax Justice break down the tax provisions in President Obama’s budget.
The first CTJ report explains the tax provisions that would benefit individuals, along with provisions that would raise revenue. The second CTJ report explains business loophole-closing provisions that the President proposes as part of an effort to reduce the corporate tax rate.
Both reports provide context that is not altogether apparent in the 300-page Treasury Department document explaining these proposals.
For example, the Treasury describes a “detailed set of proposals that close loopholes and provide incentives” that would be “enacted as part of long-run revenue-neutral tax reform” for businesses. What they actually mean is that the President, for some reason, has decided that the corporate tax rate should be dramatically lowered and he has come up with loophole-closing proposals that would offset about a fourth of the costs, so Congress is on its own to come up with the rest of the money.
To take another example, when the Treasury explains that the President proposes to “conform SECA taxes for professional service businesses,” what they actually mean is, “The President proposes to close the loophole that John Edwards and Newt Gingrich used to avoid paying the Medicare tax.”
And when the Treasury says the President proposes to “limit the total accrual of tax-favored retirement benefits,” what they really mean to say is, “We don’t know how Mitt Romney ended up with $87 million in a tax-subsidized retirement account, but we sure as hell don’t want to let that happen again.”
Read the CTJ reports:
The President’s FY 2015 Budget: Tax Provisions to Benefit Individuals and Raise Revenue
The President’s FY 2015 Budget: Tax Provisions Affecting Businesses
Tax Gap News
New CTJ Reports Explain the Tax Provisions in President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2015 Budget Proposal
(Updated 1/24/2014 to reflect the fact the resolution passed.)
At its yearly winter meeting, the Republican National Committee approved a resolution calling for the repeal of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), a major law enacted in 2010 (as part of the HIRE Act) to clamp down on offshore tax evasion.
FATCA was enacted in the wake of revelations that the Swiss bank UBS had helped American citizens evade U.S. income taxes by illegally hiding income in offshore accounts. The most important provisions of FATCA basically require Americans, including those living abroad, to tell the IRS about offshore assets greater than $50,000, and apply a withholding tax to payments made to any foreign banks that refuse to share information about their American customers with the IRS.
Those who are directly affected by FATCA are likely to be few in number and they certainly have the means to fill out the disclosure form required with their federal income tax return under its provisions. The $50,000 threshold excludes housing and other non-financial assets. That means that even a relatively well-off American who works for a few years abroad and even someone who owns a house abroad will not be affected unless they hold over $50,000 in cash or financial assets in the other country.
Whatever inconvenience is caused by these requirements is far outweighed by the benefits to the U.S. and its law abiding taxpayers. According to the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT), FATCA's anti-tax evasion measures are estimated to raise $8.7 billion (PDF) over their first decade of implementation. (JCT does have a history of underestimating tax enforcement measures.) Considering that the U.S. loses an estimated $100 billion (PDF) annually due to offshore tax abuses, this seems like a modest reform.
In May 2013, Senator Rand Paul introduced legislation to repeal the important parts of FATCA, claiming that this is necessary to protect privacy. But there simply is no right of Americans to hide income from the IRS. As we explained at that time, for a country with a personal income tax (like the U.S.), that kind of information sharing is indispensible to tax compliance, as the IRS stated in its most recent report on the “tax gap”:
“Overall, compliance is highest where there is third-party information reporting and/or withholding. For example, most wages and salaries are reported by employers to the IRS on Forms W-2 and are subject to withholding. As a result, a net of only 1 percent of wage and salary income was misreported. But amounts subject to little or no information reporting had a 56 percent net misreporting rate in 2006.”
Other opponents of FATCA, like the Wall Street Journal, have claimed that it is causing Americans living abroad to renounce their U.S. citizenship, but as we have pointed out, those renouncing citizenship make up a tiny fraction of one percent of the six million Americans living abroad.
While most of the IRS’s various statistical reports tend to inspire little excitement in the public and media, the agency’s latest report,“Individual Income Tax Returns, 2010” is something of a barnburner, in part because it confirms several troubling trends in the federal income tax. A few stand outs:
1. Our Income Tax Code Stops Being Progressive at $2 Million of Income
According to the new IRS data, the average effective income tax rate actually drops from 25.3 percent for people making (a mere) $1.5 - 2 million to 20.7 percent for taxpayers making $10 million or more in income. (Those are 2010 figures.) In other words, as a taxpayer’s income surpasses $2 million, their effective income tax rate actually goes down, which is the opposite of what should happen under a progressive tax system.
2. Average Effective Income Tax Rates on Taxpayers Making Over $500,000 Dropped In 2010
While taxpayers making between $30,000 and $499,000 saw their average effective income tax rates go up slightly between 2009 and 2010, taxpayers making $500,000 or more actually saw their average effective tax rates go down. In fact, taxpayers making $10 million or more saw their effective tax rate drop almost eight percent from 2009 to 2010. Looking over a decade (2001 to 2010), the picture is even more dramatic: taxpayers making $10 million or more saw their average effective tax rate drop by almost 21 percent.
3. The Special Low Rate on Capital Income is Driving Effective Income Tax Rates Lower for the Wealthiest of the Wealthy
What explains the drop in the average effective tax rate for people making $10 million or more between 2009 and 2010? The IRS data reveals that these taxpayers saw their reported income from capital gains and dividend income increase to 48.5 percent of their total income in 2010, compared to 35.8 percent in 2009. That change was driven largely by the economic recovery and rebounding stock market. Because income from investments is subject to a lower preferential rate than wages or salary, the more income taxpayers earn from these sources the lower the effective tax rate they will ultimately pay. As Citizens for Tax Justice has explained, ending the tax preference on capital gains and dividends is critical to ensuring that the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that only nine percent of Americans believe the tax system works for the middle class, with 68 percent saying it actually favors the wealthy. The survey shows a public overwhelmingly convinced that our tax system is unfair and that taxes should be raised on wealthy Americans.
The belief that the tax system is unfair has surely been fueled by the recent revelation of presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s super low 14% tax rate on his $21 million income. In fact, the same poll found that 66 percent of the public generally – and even a near majority of Republicans! – believe that Romney is not paying his fair share in taxes.
Not surprisingly, then, Americans overwhelmingly support increasing taxes on the wealthy, according to this poll, with 72 percent saying that taxes should be increased on millionaires. Of course, time and time again polls have shown the public’s robust support for progressive taxation.
A Growing Gap Between Small and Big Business
In related news, a nationwide survey released by the American Sustainable Business Council, Main Street Alliance and Small Business Majority shows that small business owners are fed up with how our corporate tax system favors big corporations at the expense of small businesses.
Indeed, 9 out of 10 small business owners said that big corporations use loopholes to avoid taxes that small businesses have to pay, with three quarters of the small business owners noting that their business is harmed by such loopholes. The same survey found that 67 percent of small business owners believe big corporations pay less than their fair share.
Even when small and large busineses agree that they want more tax handouts from Congress, they're talking about very different things, according to a new Bloomberg (subscription only) poll. Asked what tax changes would help them most, advisors to smaller businesses prioritize things like reducing payroll taxes on employers and making permanent the deduction for self-employment. Big business priorities included 100 percent expensing (a.k.a. bonus depreciation) of equipment and complete overhaul of the corporate tax code – including a reduced tax rate.
These studies are more reason corporate lobbyists and their patrons in Congress should stop pretending they’re all about small business. They’re not.
A new report from the IRS estimates that individuals and businesses failed to pay $385 billion of the taxes they owed in a single year — a figure that many experts believe is an understatement. This comes just months after Congress cut funding for IRS enforcement activities that could recoup those dollars.
The IRS report estimates that taxpayers paid $450 billion less than was owed in 2006 and that the IRS eventually recovered $65 billion of that, leaving a net "tax gap" of $385 billion — which is roughly 14.5 percent of all taxes due.
As CTJ director Bob McIntyre explained in his testimony before the Senate Budget Committee a few years ago, he and other tax experts have long thought that the tax gap is actually larger than what the IRS estimates, particularly the portion that results from income hidden in offshore tax havens.
The IRS is less able to counter this type of tax evasion than it was in the past. Congress drastically slashed the IRS budget in the 1990s with the rationale that the agency was a bother to taxpayers. But another report released today by the National Taxpayer Advocate (a Bush appointee) concludes that the paltry budget for the IRS is itself the source of irritation for taxpayers who are affected by the various short-cuts the IRS must take in administering the tax system with fewer staff.
The more fundamental problem with the tax gap is that it means the vast majority of Americans, who pay the taxes they owe, are effectively subsidizing those who do not.
Most middle-income working people don't have many opportunities to evade taxes because their employers report their wages to the IRS and withhold a portion of them for taxes. On the other hand, corporations and business owners are responsible for a majority of the tax gap.
For example, underreporting of business income, corporate income, and compensation by self-employed individuals together make up a majority of the tax gap, according to the IRS report.
Congress's cuts to IRS funding are bizarre because this is one type of government spending that pays for itself several times over. In some cases a dollar of additional IRS funding can generate $200 of revenue. In other words, lawmakers have forced cuts to the IRS budget knowing full well that this is one type of spending cut that actually increases the budget deficit.
In addition to restoring IRS funding, there are other measures that Congress can take to increase income reporting and crack down on institutions that facilitate offshore tax evasion, as McIntyre called for in his testimony. Most of those proposals have still not been enacted, partly because they're opposed by the Tax Cheaters Lobby.
Photo of Tax Preparation via Money Blog Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0
Unlike most types of public spending, increased funding of the IRS actually reduces the deficit. In some cases a dollar of additional IRS funding can generate $10 of revenue. Because of this, the non-partisan National Taxpayer Advocate noted in her recent report to Congress that the IRS should be viewed as not part of the deficit problem, but rather “as part of the solution.”
Taking this perspective, the Obama Administration proposed earlier this year to increase the IRS’s budget from $12.1 billion to $13.3 billion, in a move that was expected to actually reduce the deficit.
A $1.1 billion increase in funding would help the IRS reduce the “tax gap,” the difference between the amount of taxes owed and the amount of taxes actually paid on time. The tax gap is estimated to be between $400 to $500 billion each year.
One recent article points out that “the biggest losers” in the failure to stop tax evasion “are America's wage earners and salaried workers, who pay an estimated 99 percent of their taxes on time because their taxes are automatically withheld from their pay and reported by a third party, their employers.” These working people — the vast majority of Americans — must pay even more in taxes when others evade theirs.
Other than tax evaders, it’s unclear who the decrease in funding is supposed to benefit. It’s certainly not law-abiding businesses or individuals, who according to a report by the law and lobbying firm K&L Gates would actually face higher compliance costs if the cut in funding is enacted.
CTJ’s director, Bob McIntyre, addressed IRS enforcement a few years ago before the Senate Budget Committee. Just returning the IRS to the staffing levels of a decade ago, he said, would require a 50 percent increase in the IRS enforcement budget. Taking this a step further, McIntyre noted that, given the increase in tax sheltering in recent years, it may be necessary to double the resources for tax enforcement in order to keep up with tax evasion.
If lawmakers are serious about reducing the deficit, then reforming and dramatically increasing (rather than decreasing) funding for the IRS is one place to start.
Photo via alykat Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0
Criminals, Inc.: Delaware's Fight to Keep Opaque Incorporation Rules Is Helping Tax Cheats and Terrorists
This week, efforts to crack down on offshore tax evasion and illegal flows of money were stymied by the U.S.'s own tax haven, Delaware. The Financial Secrecy Index ranks Delaware as the world's number one secrecy jurisdiction and this week one of the state's Senators fought to maintain its ranking.
Last year, Senators Levin, Grassley, and McCaskill introduced a bill (S. 569) to require states to collect information on the beneficial owners (i.e., whoever ultimately owns and controls a company) when a corporation or LLC is formed. A summary of the bill's provisions can be found here. The Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee (HSGAC) had scheduled a markup of the bill this week, but that was postponed when an alternative bill was proposed by Sen. Carper (D-DE). In addition to other problems, Carper's bill would allow the beneficial owner on record to be a shell company, rather than requiring it to be an actual human being. This would defeat the whole purpose of the bill.
In hearings last year on S. 569, Senator Levin told of a single Utah company that had been engaged in suspicious wire transfers of $150 million. When Immigrations and Custom Enforcement (ICE) investigated, they discovered a web of over 800 companies formed in all 50 states, all controlled by the same Panamanian entities involved "in a massive shell game in which U.S. companies were being used to disguise the movement of funds and mask suspicious activity." The Utah company had been set up by a Delaware corporation, and the investigation hit a dead end when ICE was unable to discover who the beneficial owners of the corporations actually were.
Or, take the case of Viktor Bout, which Senator Levin described in another hearing last year. Bout, an indicted Russian arms dealer who was the inspiration for the book Merchants of Death (and the Nicholas Cage movie), used Florida, Texas and Delaware companies to carry out his activities, including moving millions in dirty money. In 2008 he was indicted for conspiracy to kill United States nationals, the acquisition and use of anti-aircraft missiles, and providing material support to terrorists.
As Senator Levin explained:
In July 2009, Romania filed a formal request with the United States for the names of [Bout's] company’s owners and other information. But it is unlikely that the United States can supply the names since, as this Committee has heard before, our 50 states are forming nearly 2 million companies each year and, in virtually all cases, doing so without obtaining the names of the people who will control or benefit from those companies. The end result is that a U.S. company may be associated with an alleged arms trafficker and supporter of terrorism, but we are stymied in finding out, in part because our States allow corporations with hidden owners.
Shell companies — as they are called because they don't do any real business — are used for all kinds of illegal purposes, including laundering money from illegal activities and financing terrorists. They are also used extensively for tax evasion. S. 569 would help law enforcement authorities combat these illegal activities and many law enforcement agencies have voiced support for the bill.
Sen. Carper is obviously concerned about his state's ability to maintain its status as the incorporation capital. But that can hardly take priority over addressing criminal activities and threats to national security. Let's hope his colleagues on HSGAC are less myopic than he is.
President Obama wants to sign a jobs bill into law. The majority of members of the House and Senate want the same thing. So do the two million out-of-work Americans who will have lost their unemployment benefits by July because of Congress's inaction. Not to mention the millions of Americans who will see public services like education and public safety slashed because their states have to make up shortfalls in Medicaid funding. And then there are the mainstream economists who conclude that some deficit-spending on measures that pump money immediately into the economy and create jobs are entirely justified when unemployment is hovering around ten percent. In the face of all this, a minority of 42 Senators has managed to block legislative action.
Congress has fought a months-long battle over the bill, H.R. 4213, which includes an extension of emergency unemployment benefits and Medicaid funding to states, two spending measures that economist Mark Zandi has argued are the most effective way to stimulate the economy. These measures result in immediate spending, which leads to a boost in consumer demand, and the retention or creation of jobs to produce the goods and services needed to meet that demand.
The bill also includes a collection of provisions that extend short-term tax breaks for business that Congress enacts every year or so. Members of Congress and Hill staffers often call these the "tax extenders." CTJ has criticized the tax extenders for years. But, we support them this year because they are coupled with provisions that would offset their costs by clamping down on unfair tax loopholes. This is a major step forward for Congress. See CTJ's many reports on these loophole-closing provisions.
To their credit, Democratic leaders have tried every conceivable tactic to win over the so-called "moderates" who are blocking the bill.
For example, the House passed legislation three times to completely eliminate the infamous "carried interest" loophole that allows certain wealthy investment fund managers to treat their compensation as capital gains and thus enjoy a lower tax rate. This time, the House scaled back its provision to close this loophole, and Democratic leaders in the Senate scaled the provision back multiple times in their versions of the bill. Eliminating this loophole, which was proposed by the Obama administration, was estimated to raise about $24 billion over a decade. Democratic leaders in the Senate whittled that down to $13.6 billion. The provision is not so much a loophole-closer any more as a loophole-reducer.
Other compromises made to secure votes were even more alarming. The most recent proposal would have taken over $9 billion of unspent funds from the recovery act that are supposed to be used for food stamps to help offset the costs of this bill. This is preposterous. Food stamps are one of the most effective types of stimulus, along with unemployment insurance benefits and fiscal aid to states, according to Mark Zandi.
The country needs the Senate to pass, some way or another, a jobs bill. Sadly, Democrat Ben Nelson and the 41 Republican Senators have the ability, under the Senate's bizarre rules, to stop that from happening.
As the Senate continues a seemingly endless debate over H.R. 4213, the jobs and "tax extenders" bill, business lobbyists, right-leaning economists and politicians have had more time to shape their arguments in defense of the tax loopholes that the bill would pare back.
To offset the costs of the tax breaks included in the bill, three types of loopholes would be restricted. They include the "carried interest" loophole that allows certain investment fund managers to treat their compensation as capital gains and thus enjoy a lower tax rate, the "John Edwards" loophole allowing people with "S corporations" to avoid payroll taxes, and abuses of the foreign tax credit by U.S.-based multinational corporations.
The debate over the "carried interest" loophole has received the most attention, and CTJ has responded to some of the outlandish arguments made in its defense.
More recently, Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME) has voiced her opposition to the provisions regarding "S corporations," and filed an amendment to strip them from the bill. A recent report from CTJ explains that this amendment should be rejected because the loophole in question allows people to underestimate the extent to which their income is wages, meaning they avoid payroll taxes.
The report also explains that the main effect of the provisions in H.R. 4213 regarding S corporations would probably be on Medicare taxes. The new health care reform law actually applies Medicare taxes to most non-retirement income, but there is a bizarre exception left for certain non-wage income from S corporations. H.R. 4213 would not even eliminate this exception entirely but would merely target those taxpayers who are most obviously manipulating the tax rules to avoid paying the Medicare tax. This seems like the least Congress could do.
The provisions in H.R. 4213 that prevent abuses of the foreign tax credit have also received more attention lately. A new report from CTJ responds to criticisms of these provisions made by the Peterson Institute's Gary Hufbauer and Theodore Moran.
The purpose of the foreign tax credit is to ensure that American individuals and corporations are not double-taxed on income that they earn in other countries. Hufbauer and Moran seem to acknowledge — and endorse — the common practice of corporations using credits in excess of what is necessary to avoid double-taxation. In these instances, corporations are really using the credit to lower their U.S. taxes on their U.S. income. Or, put another way, it means the credit is being used to subsidize foreign countries by helping U.S. corporations pay their foreign taxes.
Surely, everyone should agree that this is not the purpose of the foreign tax credit. But without the reforms included in H.R. 4213, these practices will continue, and we will have missed an important opportunity to make our tax system fairer and more rational.
A new report from Citizens for Tax Justice explains that the new jobs and "extenders" bill released by the chairmen of the House and Senate tax-writing committees on Thursday contains several long-overdue provisions to close tax loopholes. The bill (H.R. 4213) takes aims at corporations that shift profits offshore, investment fund managers who use the "carried interest" loophole to pay lower tax rates than their secretaries, and business people who use the "John Edwards" loophole to avoid their Social Security and Medicare taxes.
Many people are more familiar with the important spending provisions in the bill geared to speed up the economic recovery, including an extension of unemployment insurance and COBRA health care benefits for the unemployed, Medicaid funding for states, TANF jobs and emergency funding for states and other measures that will help boost the economy.
The tax loophole-closing provisions are used to offset the costs of extending several small tax breaks. The spending portion is mostly considered emergency spending that does not have to be paid for under Congress's budget procedures because it is temporary and necessary to prevent the economy from drifting back towards recession. (The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains why the spending portions of the bill are economically necessary and fiscally sound.)
Call your lawmakers now and urge them to vote in favor of H.R. 4213. Visit the website for Jobs for America Now, which makes it extremely easy for you to make a toll-free call to your lawmakers to support this bill.
On July 30, Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA), along with six cosponsors, introduced the Taxpayer Responsibility, Accountability, and Consistency Act (H.R. 3408) which is aimed at stopping the misclassification of employees as independent contractors.
For each worker that a company "employs," it must withhold income and payroll taxes, pay benefits and unemployment insurance, and comply with labor laws. But companies do not have these expenses when they use "independent contractors" rather than "employees." Independent contractors are themselves responsible for paying the employer half of payroll taxes, as well as the employee half, and they generally don't receive other benefits like health insurance from companies that hire them.
As a result, some employers intentionally misclassify workers as "independent contractors" to avoid these costs.
It's unclear exactly how much misclassifying employees costs the U.S. Treasury. In theory, it would not matter to the Treasury whether payroll taxes are entirely paid by workers (as is the case for independent contractors) or half paid by employers (as is the case for employees) but the reality is that workers misclassified as independent contractors may be unable to shoulder the payroll taxes and are often unaware of this responsibility until the taxes are due. Or the income to independent contractors is simply not reported at all.
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report issued earlier this year found that only 8 percent of small businesses with assets under $10 million submitted 1099-MISC forms that are due whenever independent contractors are used. It seems pretty unlikely that only 8 percent of those companies are really hiring independent contractors. When income is not reported to the IRS by a third party, the income is correctly reported only 46 percent of the time.
Many employers use a loophole created by Sec. 530 of the Revenue Act of 1978 which is commonly referred to as "Sec. 530 relief." It allows employers to classify workers as independent contractors if they have historically done so, or if it is the industry practice. H.R. 3408 would repeal Sec. 530 and replace it with a new test which would be more difficult to meet. The old "Sec. 530 relief" would continue to be available for one year after the new bill is enacted.
A new report by Joel Slemrod of the University of Michigan and Andrew Johns of the IRS finds that more income is hidden from the IRS by higher-income people. The report uses data from the National Research Program (NRP) Individual Income Tax Reporting Compliance Study for the 2001 tax year. This is the same data that was used to produce the famous conclusion that the tax gap (the difference between taxes owed and taxes paid) for that year was $290 billion. The authors supplement this data with estimates of additional unreported income by the IRS.
They find that people whose real adjusted gross income (AGI) is between half a million and a million dollars fail to report 21 percent of their income on average. By contrast, those with real AGI between $40,000 and $50,000 fail to report just 7 percent of their income.
This is not surprising. Most of the income received by low- and middle-income people takes the form of wages, for which there is third party reporting. (Your employer reports how much you were paid to the IRS, which can easily verify that what you report is no different.) High-income people tend to have more income in the form of self-employment earnings, capital gains, rent income, partnership income or other types of income that are more difficult for the IRS to detect. The authors say this partially, but not entirely, explains why the rich misreport more. But given the abundance of tax shelters being peddled specifically to high-income taxpayers, we would be amazed if misreporting of income to the IRS was not more pronounced among the wealthy.
Last week, Congress left for its Memorial Day recess having completed some important work but leaving a lot more for the summer weeks ahead. Among the issues we've been following:
- The tax "extenders" bill which includes extensions of tax cuts for business and energy and a few new tax cuts like an improvement in the Child Tax Credit for poor families.
Status: Passed by House.
The House passed its version of this bill (H.R. 6049) last week. As explained in a CTJ report, the President has threatened to veto the bill mainly because the House had the audacity to include revenue-raising provisions to offset the costs and prevent an increase in the budget deficit. This bill contains some provisions, like the extension of the Research and Experimentation Credit and a tax break for offshore financial services, that are not good policy, but the White House supports all of those.
One of the revenue-raising provisions would delay a 2004-enacted law that has not even gone into effect yet. The soon-to-take-effect law is designed to make it easier for multinational corporations to take U.S. tax deductions for interest payments that are really expenses of earning foreign profits and therefore should not be deductible. Under the House bill, implementation of this tax break (the new "worldwide interest allocation" rules) would be delayed until 2019, raising about $30 billion over ten years.The second revenue-raising provision would crack down on the use of offshore schemes that private equity fund managers use to avoid taxes on deferred compensation, raising about $24 billion over ten years.
Democratic leaders in the Senate would like to pass an extenders bill that does not increase the budget deficit, so they are considering whether to have the Finance Committee consider a bill or simply bring the House-passed bill right to the floor of the Senate.
- The farm bill.
Status: House and Senate voted to override President's veto. Provisions targeting the tax gap were not included in final version.
There was hope that this long-fought-over legislation would include provisions that target the "tax gap" (the difference between taxes owed and taxes actually paid). None of these provisions were included in the final bill (H.R. 2419), which instead raises some revenue by reducing the ethanol tax credit and making other changes related to agriculture.
The White House had opposed a revenue-raising provision that the House attached to its version of the farm bill passed back in July of last year. Initially proposed by Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) and endorsed by Citizens for Tax Justice, this provision would raise $7.5 billion over ten years by stopping foreign corporations with subsidiaries in the U.S. from manipulating international tax treaties to avoid taxes. The Senate passed a farm bill in December that had its own revenue-raising provisions. The largest was a provision that would reduce tax avoidance schemes by codifying what is known as the "economic substance doctrine," which basically means taxpayers will not obtain tax benefits from transactions that were entered into mainly to avoid taxes. Citizens for Tax Justice advocated for this measure (although calling for a stronger version of it).
The House Ways and Means Committee chairman Charles Rangel (D-NY) had proposed a different revenue-raising provision that would require credit card issuers to report payments made by cardholders to merchants. The Senate wanted to raise revenue by requiring brokers of publicly traded securities to report the basis of a security in a transaction to ensure that capital gains taxes are paid fully. Another version of the bill included the two revenue-raisers that are now part of the House extenders bill.
- Emergency supplemental spending bill.
Status: The House approved a version with a surcharge for the very rich while the Senate approved a version without the surcharge.
On May 15, the U.S. House of Representatives took votes on amendments to an emergency supplemental spending bill to fund military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, to improve veterans' education benefits and to extend unemployment insurance benefits to get jobless Americans through difficult times.
The House actually voted down the war funding. One amendment that was approved would improve the educational benefits available to veterans by increasing them to match the highest public university tuition in a given recipient's state and providing a monthly housing stipend.
This improvement in veterans' education benefits would cost about $52 billion over ten years. To offset this cost, the legislation includes a small surtax on those who have most enjoyed the benefits of living in and doing business in America. The surtax of 0.47 percent (just under half a percent) would apply to adjusted gross income (AGI) over a million dollars for married couples and over half a million dollars for other taxpayers.
Figures from Citizens for Tax Justice show that in 2007 only 0.3 percent of taxpayers were rich enough to be affected by such a tax. Moreover, the sacrifice asked of them is tiny, equal to about 7 percent of their Bush tax cuts.
The Senate then passed a version that included the war funding, the improved veterans' educational benefits and extended unemployment insurance benefits, but no surcharge on the very rich. Democratic leaders in the House could try to pass the Senate version or pass a different version and send it back to the Senate. Meanwhile, the White House wants a "clean" supplemental without any increased domestic spending or tax increase.
- Military tax benefits bill.
Status: Approved unanimously by House and by voice vote by the Senate.
This bill, H.R. 6081, spends a relatively small amount of revenue on tax breaks for military personnel and veterans. Of particular note are two of the revenue-raising provisions in the bill. One would close the loophole used by Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR), the former subsidiary of Halliburton, to avoid paying Social Security and Medicare taxes for the Americans it employs to work in Iraq. This provision, which is a victory for tax fairness, was earlier proposed as legislation offered by Senator John Kerry (D-MA) as reported in the Digest. Another revenue-raising provision in this bill would make it harder for wealthy Americans to escape federal taxes by leaving the country and giving up U.S. citizenship.
- Congressional Budget Resolution (S Con Res 70).
Status: The House and Senate passed different versions. The conference agreement is expected to come up for a vote sometime after the recess.
As explained in a CTJ report, the resolution approved by the House offered more responsible tax provisions in a number of areas.
Most importantly, the House budget plan used "reconciliation instructions" that would make it easier to pass a bill to provide relief from the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) without increasing the deficit. Any further increase in the national debt is likely to be borne, in the long-run, by the middle-class, so it would be unfair to take on debt to provide AMT relief, which mostly benefits families that are relatively wealthy. The Senate plan, unfortunately, did not use this approach because the Senate assumed that an AMT patch will be deficit-financed.
The conference agreement that has been worked out would create a point of order in the Senate against legislation that increases the deficit by over $10 billion during any year covered by the budget resolution. As with the pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) rule, this point of order can be waived by 60 votes. The conference agreement also assumes that Congress will extend several of the Bush tax cuts for the middle-class, but it unfortunately includes in this category a cut in the estate tax that can only help families owning estates worth several million dollars. Of course, the budget resolution does not raise taxes or cut taxes and is not legislation, but a blueprint for Democratic leaders in the House and Senate. Most spending and tax decisions are likely to be put off until a new president takes office.
House and Senate committee chairmen continue their months-long battle over reauthorizing various agriculture programs under what is usually called the "farm bill," and some of the consternation is over tax provisions. Both chambers earlier agreed that they want to spend $10 billion over the spending "baseline" for the programs (which is essentially an assumption of a continuation of current policy). But the version House conferees recently offered cut that down to $6 billion above baseline by removing a disaster trust fund that several Senators want, while Senate conferees want to include $2.5 billion in tax breaks related to agriculture and energy.
Among the tax breaks is a half a billion dollars in incentives related to livestock, including a provision that would reduce capital gains taxes on horses which is supported by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Other tax breaks range from incentives to protect endangered species to encouraging the use of energy from wind and other sources, many of which seem to have little, if anything, to do with farming.
How to pay for new spending and tax breaks has also been controversial.
The White House had opposed a revenue-raising provision that the House attached to its version of the farm bill passed back in July (H.R. 2419). Initially proposed by Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) and endorsed by Citizens for Tax Justice, this provision would raise $7.5 billion over ten years by stopping foreign corporations with subsidiaries in the U.S. from manipulating international tax treaties to avoid taxes. The Senate passed a farm bill in December that had its own revenue-raising provisions. The largest was a provision that would reduce tax avoidance schemes by codifying what is known as the "economic substance doctrine," which basically means taxpayers will not obtain tax benefits from transactions that were entered into for no other purpose than to avoid taxes. Citizens for Tax Justice advocated for this measure (although calling for a stronger version of it).
Now the House Ways and Means Committee chairman Charles Rangel (D-NY) has proposed a different revenue-raising provision that would require credit card issuers to report payments made by cardholders to merchants. The Senate wants to raise revenue by requiring brokers of publicly traded securities to report the basis of a security in a transaction to ensure that capital gains taxes are paid fully. If that sounds familiar, it is. The House Ways and Means Committee included that offset in the package of tax provisions it approved to address the foreclosure crisis, as reported in this Digest.
An extension of the farm bill currently in effect expires Friday, and the White House has threatened to veto another extension.
The House and Senate have been battling each other, as well as the White House, over how to reauthorize various agricultural programs under what is usually referred to simply as the "Farm Bill." The battle is largely over how much the federal government should or should not support farming, which farmers should be supported and how. Proposals to raise revenue for a disaster trust fund, conservation and nutrition have added to the controversy. During the swearing in ceremony of the new Agriculture Secretary, Ed Schafer, Bush said specifically that he would veto any farm bill that raises taxes. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN) is working on a new version of the bill to end the deadlock and it's reported that this version will attempt to raise revenue without tax increases.
One measure that the President considers a tax increase is a provision the House attached to its version of the farm bill passed back in July (H.R. 2419). Initially proposed by Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) and endorsed by Citizens for Tax Justice, this provision would raise $7.5 billion over ten years by stopping foreign corporations with subsidiaries in the U.S. from manipulating international tax treaties to avoid taxes. U.S. subsidiaries of foreign corporations don't have to pay withholding taxes on passive income if they are based in a country that has a treaty with the U.S. allowing that country to have the sole taxing power. But corporations based (on paper at least) in a non-treaty country can shift profits from a U.S. subsidiary to another subsidiary in a treaty country and then shift them to the parent corporation in the non-treaty country, ensuring that they are never taxed. The Doggett provision would simply apply the withholding that would apply if the payment was made directly to the parent company in the non-treaty country in that situation. The White House has singled this provision out as unacceptable.
The Senate passed a farm bill in December that had its own revenue-raising provisions. The largest is a provision that would reduce tax avoidance schemes by codifying what is known as the "economic substance doctrine," which basically means taxpayers will not obtain tax benefits from transactions that were entered into for no other purpose than to avoid taxes. In addition to raising $10 billion over ten years, this provision would arguably reduce the economic inefficiency that comes with the exploitation of tax loopholes. Citizens for Tax Justice advocated for this measure (although calling for a stronger version of it) but it is unclear whether the White House will see this as a "tax increase."
Another revenue-raising provision in the Senate bill takes aim at tax shelters known as sale-in, lease-out (SILOs). These arrangements, which can involve an American bank buying something like a subway or sewer system in another country and "leasing" it back to the foreign government for tax advantages, were already banned starting in 2004 but that ban would retroactively apply to deals made before 2004 under this provision. Some members of Congress oppose any such retroactive changes in tax laws, but the Senate Finance Committee earlier last year tried to include this change in minimum wage and energy legislation.
Now House Agriculture Committee Chairman Peterson is putting together a new version of the farm bill with the help of Republicans on his committee that will not include the Doggett provision. The White House appears to look more favorably on this effort. This bill would still require $6 billion in new revenue, and it's reported that Peterson is working with House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel (D-NY) on provisions that would accomplish that by enhancing tax enforcement. Several members of the Senate, meanwhile, say that the deal would not invest enough in agriculture and are likely to respond with a new bill of their own.
Report Details How Lack of Tax Enforcement (Especially for Wealthy Individuals and Large Companies) Is Costing Us
Often lost in the debate over whether taxes should be increased or decreased is the fact that we can raise some revenue by doing a better job of enforcing current tax laws. A report issued earlier this month by OMB Watch explains that a lack of funding for tax enforcement by the IRS is costing us money and contributing to the "tax gap," the difference between the amount of taxes owed and the amount actually paid each year. The IRS has estimated that in 2001, $345 billion in taxes due was not collected on time, and around $290 billion of that was never collected. This means that taxpayers who comply with the law are in effect subsidizing those who do not.
The report, Bridging the Gap: The Case for Increasing the IRS Budget explains that IRS staff have been cut back since 1995 and that cuts have been especially severe among the staff who perform audits. Partly as a result of this, the number of audits is down, particularly for those with incomes over $100,000 and for large corporations -- the very types of audits that usually uncover the most in unpaid taxes. The amount of time spent on each audit has decreased and the audits are less often uncovering unpaid taxes, even though the tax gap remains a major problem.
Meanwhile, the report explains, Congress has instructed the IRS to crack down on EITC recipients (even though incorrect EITC payments account for only 3 percent or less of the tax gap) and has funded a private debt collection program that doesn't collect nearly as much money as IRS staff can collect at a given funding level.
The report argues that this situation can be turned around by increased funding for IRS enforcement, improved quality of audits, eliminating private debt collection and focusing more on assisting low-income taxpayers so that they can avoid errors in the extremely complicated EITC application process. Congress should pay serious attention. Increasing the IRS budget is one of the few opportunities lawmakers have to immediately raise revenues by spending money.
Senate Finance Committee Approves Agricultural Tax Bill with a Provision to Crack Down on Tax Avoidance Schemes
The Senate Finance Committee voted 17 to 4 Thursday to approve a tax package that will cost $17 billion over ten years and will be added to the reauthorization of the farm bill that the Senate Agriculture Committee will take up in a couple weeks. The tax package includes a $5 billion trust fund for crop disaster assistance as well as $3 billion in tax credits to encourage conservation. These items would replace direct spending programs for these purposes and, since the Finance Committee package includes offsets, will free up funds for other purposes in the larger agriculture bill.
The largest offset is a provision that will reduce tax avoidance schemes by codifying what is known as the "economic substance doctrine," which basically means that transactions having no purpose other than to avoid taxes are void. This provision, which arguably will reduce the economic inefficiency that comes with the exploitation of tax loopholes, will raise $10 billion over ten years.
Another revenue-raising provision takes aim at tax shelters known as sale-in, lease-out (SILOs). These arrangements, which can involve an American bank buying something like a subway or sewer system in another country and "leasing" it back to the foreign government for tax advantages, were already banned starting in 2004 but that ban would retroactively apply to deals made before 2004 under this provision. Some members of Congress oppose any such retroactive changes in tax laws, but the Senate Finance Committee earlier this year tried to include this change in minimum wage and energy legislation.
Another provision raises $854 million by cutting the tax credit for ethanol from 51 cents to 46 cents a gallon when ethanol production reaches a certain level. Several amendments were approved. Jim Bunning (R-KY) delayed the markup for a couple hours before agreement was reached to include his amendment to create a 50 cent-per-gallon tax credit for fuel made from liquefied coal or natural gas. Environmental organizations point out that use of liquefied coal may actually increase global warming, underscoring the possibility that these matters are not exactly within the expertise of the Congressional tax-writing committees.
A new proposal in the Senate would crack down on employers who misclassify workers as independent contractors to avoid paying federal payroll taxes. Low-income workers who are not knowledgeable about the tax rules can be classified as independent contractors and not realize that this means they must pay both the employer portion and the employee portion of federal payroll taxes to the IRS on their own.
Anecdotal accounts from volunteer tax preparers who help low-income families file for the EITC indicate that they have had to tell some people in this situation that they actually owe a huge amount of payroll taxes that they had not planned for. When these workers do not or are not able to make the payment, this results in reduced taxes being paid into Social Security and Medicare. The Government Accountability Office has estimated that the cost each year is at least several billion dollars in lost revenues.
The proposal would reform the current rules, which provide a "safe harbor" that lets employers who misclassify workers as independent contractors continue doing so if they had a "reasonable basis" for the classification. Under current law, the reasonable basis can be that the practice is widespread in the particular industry, meaning that construction companies can misclassify workers because so many other construction companies do the same. The misclassification can also lead to the denial of other workers' rights and benefits as well as employer-provided health benefits and pension benefits.
The bill (S. 2044) would bar employers from using this "reasonable basis" argument and would allow the IRS to tell employers to reclassify workers in this situation. The bill is sponsored by Senators Barack Obama (D-IL), Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Richard Durbin (D-IL), and Patty Murray (D-WA).
The "tax gap," the difference between the total taxes owed and the total taxes paid in a given year, continues to be an alluring target for members of Congress. The IRS has estimated that in 2001, $345 billion in taxes due was not collected on time, and around $290 billion of that will never be collected. There is possibly much more tax evasion taking place in offshore tax havens.
A bill has been introduced in the House by Representatives Rahm Emanuel (D-IL), Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) to crack down on offshore tax havens. A companion bill was introduced a few months ago in the Senate by Senators Carl Levin (D-MI), Norm Coleman (R-MN) and Barack Obama (D-IL). The legislation includes a presumption that offshore trusts and shell corporations in designated tax havens are controlled by the taxpayers funding them or directing them. It would also ban patents on tax strategies and would allow the federal government to order American banks to stop accepting or authorizing credit cards from foreign countries or banks not cooperating with U.S. tax enforcement laws. These reforms are important to anyone who pays her fair share - and is tired of subsidizing people who don't.
Congressmen Rahm Emanuel (D-IL) and Ray Lahood (R-IL) have put forward a bipartisan proposal to use revenues collected through better enforcement of capital gains taxes to double the funding of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) over the next 5 years to $60 billion. Ten billion dollars of this increase would go to children not currently covered by SCHIP. Families whose income is between 200% and 350% of the federal poverty level ($20,000 for a family of 4) would receive an advanceable and refundable tax credit to purchase health insurance for children.
The proposal to improve capital gains enforcement has already been presented as a bill by Representative Emanuel (H.R. 878) that would require securities brokers to report a customer's basis (generally the purchase price) in securities transactions to prevent understating the capital gains on such transactions. This step was one the suggestions offered by Citizens for Tax Justice to the Senate Budget Committee in January. The President included a similar proposal in his budget for fiscal year 2008. As reported in last week's Tax Justice Digest, another proposal to expand SCHIP would use revenue from an increased federal cigarette tax. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has a new report that outlines various ways of paying for an SCHIP expansion.
The President's proposed budget released Monday includes some very minor measures that would close the "tax gap," the difference between the amount of taxes owed and the amount paid each year, by $3 billion a year. But this is, at most, 1 percent of the total tax gap. The IRS has estimated that the tax gap was around $300 billion in 2001 and most experts think even that number is an understatement. Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) and other Democrats criticized the steps as not nearly enough to address the scope of the problem. This is reinforced by the fact that IRS Commissioner Mark Everson told the Senate Budget Committee last year that he could, in a given year, locate some of these taxes and increase collections by "between $50 billion and $100 billion without changing the dynamic between the IRS and the people." Democrats and Republicans have become concerned about the tax gap, because it results in compliant taxpayers effectively subsidizing the tax evasion of the less honest.