A Tale of Two Speeches

The president gave his State of the Union speech last Tuesday, while his Secretary of Treasury spoke to the Brookings Institution the following morning.  The president didn’t mention tax reform, whereas Lew devoted nearly his entire speech to building the case for action this year.  It was a head-scratching juxtaposition that still has us wondering if Treasury and the White House are on speaking terms these days.

  • You can read the president’s speech here
  • You can watch the Lew speech here

Lew’s speech in particular is worth watching.  His focus was on the tax reform “framework” Treasury put forward three years ago coupled with a message that there are many areas of overlap between the Administration and Republicans.  That’s debatable, to put it mildly, but one obvious area where there is no overlap is the treatment of pass-through businesses.  Here’s Politico’s take:

Lew “glossed over a key area of contention: how to deal with small businesses that file on the individual side of the tax code. Many Republicans, including Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch, and some Democrats say it is impossible to adequately address the needs of those businesses, which range from mom and pop stores to big law and financial firms.”

And:

Lew might have talked about “business tax reform” quite a bit on Wednesday, but he seems to be sending mixed messages to small businesses. Last week, he met with a group of small business trade groups to talk tax reform, and Reuters is reporting that Lew actually suggested some of them incorporate if they want to receive the benefits of a lower tax following a tax reform: “Lew’s answer was that some such firms, which are known as ‘pass throughs,’ would probably be better off becoming corporations, according to three people who were in the room and asked not to be named.”

So what does this all mean for the prospects of tax reform?  Our friends at Cornerstone Macro made this observation:

President Obama has not held a single public event designed to promote tax reform. During the last few weeks, Obama held events across the country to promote free community college, tout lower FHA fees for homeowners, and discuss other administration priorities. Over the years, he has held hundreds of public events of one kind or another to push his legislative agenda. To the best of our knowledge, he has never held a single event designed to promote tax reform.

President Obama has made clear his primary interest in tax policy is to raise revenue to pay for new spending.  Unless that changes, and quickly, it is going to be very difficult for Congress and the Treasury to come together to reform the tax code this year.

 

S-CORP in WSJ

The Wall Street Journal featured an op-ed co-authored by S-CORP President Brian Reardon and Advisory Board Chair Tom Nichols last week. The piece calls on Congress and the Administration to make Main Street businesses an equal partner in tax reform by restoring the parity in the top tax rates paid by pass-through businesses and C corps.

The op-ed came the day before the President’s State of the Union address where, contrary to expectations, the President neglected to mention tax reform and instead proposed raising capital gains taxes on businesses and other taxpayers.  As Brian and Tom point out, while President Obama’s plan is offered under the guise of helping the middle class, these changes will ultimately hurt the middle class by increasing the already heavy tax burden shouldered by many employers.

Lew Punts on Tax Reform, Inversions

Secretary Lew gave his tax reform speech this morning.  It lasted maybe 10 minutes and he didn’t take questions afterwards.  Given the buzz the speech’s announcement created on Wall Street and in tax policy circles, the event itself was a major disappointment.

The Obama Administration is beginning to resemble an old Brian Regan comedy routine about how passengers on an airplane get excited when the pilot comes on the intercom, even though the pilot never has anything good to say.  Just a variation on the same old theme that the flight will be delayed because….

This Administration never appears to say anything new either.  Faced with a raft of inversions, Lew used this speech to plug the Administration’s two-year old “business tax reform” outline that went nowhere two years ago, and has even less momentum today.

Raising the overall tax burden and increasing the penalty of our worldwide system is a non-starter for both political and policy reasons.  From the pass through perspective, the Administration’s “business tax reform” plan is nothing more than corporate tax reform in disguise, with little or nothing to help S corporations and partnerships.  The plan appears to offer lower tax rates for C corporations and higher tax burdens for everybody else.

Lew did tamp down expectations that Treasury would take strong administrative action to address inversions.  In the speech, Lew announced Treasury would act “in the very near future” but also made clear whatever action they took would not be sufficient to fix the problem.  Congress must act, he cautioned.

But action by Congress is also in doubt.  Majority Leader Harry Reid earlier had signaled the Senate might take up inversion legislation when the Senate returns this week, but disagreements among key Democratic tax writers over the best approach may kill that effort.

So there you have it – after the President took ownership of the tax inversion issue by announcing his Treasury Department would address them administratively, Secretary Lew is now lowering expectations and attempting to toss the ball back into Congress’ court, where most observers believe it belonged the entire time.

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