Tax Reform Rehash

The release of Finance Committee tax reform discussion drafts on cost recovery and international tax have laid bare a reality that’s been hiding just below the surface for two years now the visions for reform embraced by the key House and Senate tax writing committees are dramatically different and move in opposite directions.

The international drafts are a good example. The Ways and Means draft would move the tax treatment of overseas income towards a territorial system, while the Baucus draft would move towards a more pure worldwide system by largely eliminating deferral. Here’s how the Tax Foundation described it:

Of the 34 most advanced countries, 28 use a territorial tax system, while only 6, including the U.S., use a worldwide tax system with deferral. No developed country imposes a worldwide tax system without deferral, though some have tried it with near disastrous effects.

Exactly how the two committees could bridge these broad differences in vision is unclear.

For pass-through businesses, the differences are just as stark. Neither committee has released details on overall rates or the treatment of pass-through businesses, but both have made clear the general direction they plan to take.

The Ways and Means Committee seeks comprehensive reform where the top rates for individuals, pass- through businesses, and corporations would be lowered and the differences between them reduced, helping to restore the rate parity that existed from 2003 to 2012. Other provisions in Chairman Camp’s draft would seek to close the differing treatment of partnerships and S corporations, creating a stronger, more coherent set of pass-through rules.

Finance Chairman Max Baucus, on the other hand, appears to actively oppose rate reductions for individuals and pass-through businesses even as he constructs his reform package around a core of cutting rates for C corporations. The inherent inconsistency of lowering corporate rates to make US businesses more competitive while simultaneously defending significantly higher rates on pass-through businesses is stark. The Baucus draft does make a vague reference to “considering” the impact on pass-through businesses, but it is clear that consideration amounts to nothing more than increased small business expensing or something similarly limited.

So the Finance Committee would cut corporate rates and ask S corporations and other pass through businesses to help pay for them. In the end, C corporations would pay a top rate of 28 or 25 percent, while pass-through businesses would pay rates 13 to 20 percentage points higher.

How do they justify this disparate treatment? The double tax on corporate income is often raised as leveling factor. As the Washington Post recently reported, “Today, the Treasury estimates, as much as 70 percent of net business income escapes the corporate tax.”

But “escaping” the corporate tax is not the same as escaping taxation. The simple fact is that pass through businesses pay lots of taxes, and they pay those taxes when the income is earned. The study we released earlier this year found that S corporations pay the highest effective tax rate (32 percent) followed by partnerships (29 percent) and then C corporations (27 percent on domestic earnings).

These findings include taxes on corporate dividends, so some of the double tax is included. They do not include capital gains taxes due to data limitations. Including capital gains would certainly close the gap between C and S corporations, but enough to make up 5 percentage points of effective tax? Not likely. Meanwhile, the study focused on US taxes only, so it doesn’t attempt to capture the effects of base erosion or the ability of C corporations to defer taxes on foreign income for long periods of time.

All in all, the argument against pass through businesses is based on some vague notion that these businesses are not paying their fair share. The reality is just the opposite. By our accounting, they pay the most. That means that, all other things being equal, today’s tax burden on S corporations makes them less competitive than their C corporation rival down the street.

Real tax reform would seek to make all business types more competitive by lowering marginal rates while also helping to level out the effective tax rates paid by differing industries and business structures. That’s the basis behind the three core principles for tax reform embraced by 73 business trade associations earlier this year: reform should be comprehensive, lower marginal rates and restore rate parity, and continue to reduce the double tax on corporate income.

These principles are fully embraced by Chairman Camp and the Ways and Means Committee. They appear to have been rejected by the Finance Committee. Which begs the question: What exactly is the goal of the Finance Committee in this process? Is it just to raise tax revenues? You don’t need “reform” to do that.

Whatever their goal, the gap between the House and the Senate is enormous, and unlikely to be closed anytime soon. Chairman Camp continues to press for reforms that would improve our tax code, but he’s going to be hard pressed to find common ground with what’s being outlined in the Senate.

Extenders

With the timeline for tax reform being pushed back, there is a bit more discussion of what to do about tax extenders. The whole package of more than 60 provisions expires at the end of the year and to date there’s been little discussion regarding how or when to extend them. As the Tax Policy Center noted this week:

It isn’t unusual for these mostly-business tax breaks to temporarily disappear, only to come back from the dead a few months after their technical expiration. But this time businesses are more nervous than usual. Their problem: Congress may have few opportunities to continue these so-called extenders in 2014. This doesn’t mean the expiring provisions won’t be brought back to life. In the end, nearly all will. But right now, it is hard to see a clear path for that happening.

While the future is murky as always, a few points of clarity do exist:

  • Nothing will happen before the end of the year. The House will recess this weekend and not return for legislative business until mid-January. Even if it took up extenders promptly after returning, which is highly unlikely, the soonest an extender package can get done would be February or March.
  • Coming up with $50 billion in offsets to replace the lost revenue will also be a challenge. Congress is tackling a permanent Doc Fix right now, which requires nearly three times that level of offsets. Coming up with an additional $50 billion will not be easy.
  • The lack of an AMT patch also is hurting urgency for the package. Congress permanently addressed the Alternative Minimum Tax earlier this year, which is good news, but that action also removed one of the most compelling catalysts for moving the annual extender package. Annually adopting the AMT patch protected 20 million households from higher taxes. That incentive is now gone.

All those points suggest that the business community has a long wait before it can expect to see an extender package move through Congress.

Or does it? One of the most popular extenders is the higher expensing limits under Section 179. This small business provision allows firms to write-off up to $500,000 in capital investments in 2013, as long as their overall amount of qualified investments is $2 million or less.

Beginning in 2014, these limits will drop to $25,000 and $200,000 respectively.

You read that correctly. Starting January, business who invest between $25,000 and $2 million in new equipment will no longer be able to write-off some or all of that cost in year one. Talk about an anti-stimulus. Coupled with the loss of bonus depreciation, the R&E tax credit, and the 5-year holding period for built in gains, and the expiration of extenders will have a measurable effect on the cost of capital investment for smaller and larger businesses alike.

This reality is beginning to sink in both on Main Street and the investment community, where certain industries rely on these provisions as a core part of their business plans in coming years. It’s too soon to see how much momentum the loss of these provisions will generate in coming months, but cutting the expensing limit from $500,000 to $25,000 in one year is bound to attract somebody’s attention.

S Corp Payroll Tax Hike Resurfaces

Last week, Senate Democrats released a paper highlighting a dozen tax increases they would like to use to offset spending cuts in the current budget negotiations. As Politico reported:

Tax expenditures topping the list include the deduction corporations take when they move operations overseas and the carried interest loophole, which allows private equity and some other investment advisers to pay the lower capital gains tax rate on some of their income.

Also on the list is our old nemesis, the S corporation payroll tax hike. Labeled the Edwards Loophole by Republicans and the Gingrich Loophole by Democrats, the issue is that some professionals are using the S corporation structure to avoid paying payroll taxes. According to the Democrats’ release:

Some wealthy business owners knowingly mischaracterize their income as business profits instead of salary to avoid Medicare and Social Security payroll taxes. Ending this loophole would save about $12 billion over the next ten years.

We have a number of objections to this characterization. First, using your S corporation to avoid payroll taxes is not a loophole, it’s tax avoidance. The current reasonable compensation rules are clear and the IRS has a history of going after offenders and winning.

Second, the proposals offered to date are worse than the existing rules. The JCT might score them as raising $12 billion over ten years, but it’s hard to see how the IRS would be able to come up with that level of enforcement.

For example, the provision defeated by the Senate back in 2012 would have replaced reasonable compensation with a “principle rainmaker” test where the IRS would have to determine whether 75 percent or more of the gross income of the S corporation is attributable to the service of three or fewer shareholders. Oh, that’s easy. As a letter signed by 38 business organizations observed:

This new approach, particularly the ”principal rainmaker” test, is neither clear nor more enforceable than existing rules. These rules have been in effect for over half a century, and the IRS has repeatedly and successfully used them to ensure that active S corporation shareholders pay themselves a reasonable wage, most recently in Watson v. US (2011).

The business community responded strongly in 2012 and that opposition remains today. We do not support the misuse of the S corporation structure to avoid payroll taxes, but any replacement to the current ”reasonable compensation” test must be easier for the IRS to enforce and for businesses to comply with.

For those who want more, here are links to the business community letter as well as a longer history of the issue:

SBA Weighs in on Corporate Tax Reform

A new study sponsored by the Small Business Administration adds to the case that corporate-only tax reform, as advocated for by the Obama Administration, would shift the tax burden on to smaller, private companies. As reported by Politico:

Cutting corporate tax rates by trimming costly breaks is a popular selling point for a tax code overhaul, but some small businesses could wind up unintended victims, an independent government agency on Wednesday said, lending support to Republican concerns.

New data from the Small Business Administration warn that the trade-off would be a double whammy to smaller businesses that file taxes as individuals.

These businesses get nothing from a corporate rate cut but they could still lose their tax breaks. The SBA study found that these businesses account for about $40 billion in tax benefits, or about one-third of the $161 billion spent each year on all business tax expenditures.

The top U.S. corporate rate is 35 percent, among the highest in the industrialized world. Although the code is riddled with breaks and loopholes that allow some companies to pay far less, others pay much more.

By contrast, the top rate for individuals, including these so-called pass-through entities, is more than 40 percent.

The study compared the value of tax expenditures for all businesses with those used by pass through and corporate businesses with annual receipts under $10 million. As the study notes:

Of the largest tax expenditure provisions utilized by all businesses in 2013, small businesses will utilize approximately $40 billion out of a total of $161 billion. The estimates indicate that small businesses will utilize approximately 25 percent of the largest business tax expenditure provisions in 2013.

So any effort to eliminate tax expenditures to pay for a lower corporate tax rate would also hit pass through businesses that pay at the individual rates. Not good. As our 2011 E&Y study made clear, such a policy would increase taxes on pass through businesses by $27 billion a year.

Budget & Tax Policy Outlook

The agreement earlier this month between Senators Reid and McConnell reopened the government for a few months, but it failed to resolve any of the issues that precipitated the shutdown in the first place.B Therebs still no consensus on spending levels or tax policy beyond the end of the year.B Key dates in the agreement are:

  • December 13th — Target for budget conferees to agree to a uniform budget
  • January 15th — Current government funding resolution (CR) expires
  • February 7th — Debt limit reached again

At this point, agreeing to a budget resolution would be a big deal.B Not only could it establish spending levels for next year, it also could put into place expedited procedures for tax and entitlement reforms stretching over the next decade and beyond.B For observers cheering for something big, including comprehensive tax reform, a successful budget conference is an essential first step.

The odds of a positive outcome, however, are slim.B The huge gap between Republicans and Democrats remains while the December 13th target date lacks any enforcement mechanisms — if the conferees fail to agree by that date, nothing happens.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi oppose any reduction in the sequester cuts that doesnbt include higher taxes — Reid went so far as to say people bwantb to pay more taxes — while Senate Budget Committee Ranking member Jeff Sessions has made clear he opposes swapping the sequester for similar sized entitlement cuts.

So those folks hoping for a narrower deal will just have to wait, too.

On the tax front, Chairman Dave Camp continues to push his leadership, committee and conference to support a comprehensive, budget neutral package by the end of the year.B Webre on record strongly supporting this effort, and it appears hebs making progress.B Meanwhile, Finance Chair Max Baucus plans to begin releasing bdiscussionb drafts outlining various parts of his plan as early as next week, with the first release likely focused on international reforms. Thatbs good news and certainly a step forward.

But the big barrier holding tax reform back has less to do with drafts and House Republicans, and more to do with basic objectives.B Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the President continue to insist on a package that raises taxes, which obviously is a non-starter with the House.B Until they work out the top line number, getting an agreement on what the underlying policies will look like is next to impossible.

Meanwhile, therebs a long list of tax provisions set to expire at the end of the year, including the higher limits ($500,000) on Section 179 expensing, the R&E tax credit and the 5-year holding period for built-in gains.B Until the budget and tax reform questions are resolved, therebs little appetite on the Hill for discussing the prospects for these provisions, so everything is on hold. As the Hill wrote this week:

Renewal of a package of tax breaks for businesses and individuals worth tens of billions of dollars has become something of a holiday tradition in Washington. Each November and December tax writers battle over which benefits are really worth keeping while business lobbyists launch fevered campaigns to keep their tax bills low.

In the end, most of the package is often renewed, attached to some other must-pass piece of tax legislation.

But this year, lawmakers will likely not even go through the motions.

Members of the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means Committees expect to spend all of their remaining time this year working on drafting comprehensive tax reform legislation. The extenders package would be a distraction from that work, they say.

So the December target date for producing a budget resolution appears to be less of a deadline and more like a warning track, letting policymakers know that the end of the year is fast approaching and that therebs limited time to move forward on tax reform or, failing that, extenders.

It doesnbt have to be that way, of course.B Outside forces could emerge in the next two months to bring the two sides together.B For example, we always thought there was an inverse relationship between the success of the Affordable Care Act and the prospects for tax reform.B The worse the roll out, the more motivated the Obama Administration would be to change the subject and work with Congress on comprehensive reform.

Itbs hard to imagine a worse roll out than what webve seen over the past month, and yet the prospects for common ground between the House, Senate, and Administration donbt appear to be increasing.B Based on his comments in Boston this week, the President certainly doesnbt seem to want to change the subject.B Maybe it will take a little time. Or maybe nothing will happen.B Right now the latter appears to be the most likely outcome.B Given how much work Chairman Camp has put into the tax reform effort and how much a well-thought out plan is needed, that would be a shame.

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