Just in time for the August recess, the House, Senate and the White House released a joint statement yesterday on the status of their tax reform talks and their plans moving forward. You can read the statement here. From our perspective, here are the key points:
“While we have debated the pro-growth benefits of border adjustability, we appreciate that there are many unknowns associated with it and have decided to set this policy aside in order to advance tax reform.”
A primary purpose of the statement was to pivot the tax conversation away from the House Blueprint and the border adjustment tax (BAT). The BAT was controversial from day one, but it also was proving to be an obstacle towards getting a budget resolution enacted in early September. The leaders of the House Freedom Caucus had stated they would oppose the budget resolution without a promise that the BAT was off the table. No budget resolution, no tax reform, so the BAT had to go.
Will it work? Unclear. Freedom Caucus Chair Mark Meadows (R-NC) was quoted this morning as saying that taking BAT off the table was nice, but they want clarity on the rest of the tax package before they would support the budget. That sequence of details first, process second is the reverse of how congressional budgeting is supposed to work, and is an indication of just how difficult it will be to get the Freedom Caucus on board with any plan in September.
“The goal is a plan that reduces tax rates as much as possible, allows unprecedented capital expensing, places a priority on permanence, and creates a system that encourages American companies to bring back jobs and profits trapped overseas. And we are now confident that, without transitioning to a new domestic consumption-based tax system, there is a viable approach for ensuring a level playing field between American and foreign companies and workers, while protecting American jobs and the U.S. tax base.”
The underlined lines, coupled with the demise of the BAT, indicate the negotiators are also moving away from full expensing and towards more limited capital cost recovery improvements, such as permanent bonus depreciation and faster depreciation schedules. Full expensing was a predicate for the BAT and a cash-flow tax system, but it faced its own challenges. It was expensive, it was paired with the controversial provision to disallow deductions of net interest, and it was received by the corporate community with a giant yawn.
“The goal is a plan that reduces tax rates as much as possible, allows unprecedented capital expensing, places a priority on permanence, and creates a system that encourages American companies to bring back jobs and profits trapped overseas.”
Temporary tax cuts are out and repatriation and territorial are in. Both of these items are significant concessions by the Trump Administration, which had in the past made the case for temporary rate cuts and only lately embraced moving towards a territorial system. The Blueprint relied on the BAT to enforce its territorial tax approach. Now that it’s out, expect the tax writers to spend lots of time crafting more complicated “Camp Option C”-type rules to crack down on base erosion under a new territorial regime.
“We also believe there should be a lower tax rate for small businesses so they can compete with larger ones, and lower rates for all American businesses so they can compete with foreign ones.”
This careful construction suggests that the tax negotiators have agreed to reduce rates for C corporations and pass through businesses alike (yea!) but have not settled on any other details, including whether the business provisions should be a tax cut or not. Compare that language with the very specific “agreement that tax relief for American families should be at the heart of our plan.” Meanwhile, White House advisor Steve Bannon has been busy selling a tax hike on high income earners. As Bloomberg reports this morning:
“White House chief strategist Steve Bannon’s plan to raise the top income-tax rate for America’s highest earners could find some support among congressional Republicans as part of a populist message to sell a broader tax overhaul, according to one conservative lawmaker who has heard the proposal…. Automatic opposition isn’t a given among some GOP members, said the lawmaker who heard the proposal – especially if they’re made to understand how it could help publicly sell a plan that would include other changes to the tax code,” the lawmaker said.
These reports should act as a wake-up call for the Main Street community. The Big Six (McConnell, Hatch, Ryan, Brady, Mnuchin, and Cohn) may have agreed that tax rates on all businesses should come down, but how that agreement squares with calls to raise rates on high income individuals, the majority of whom are business owners, is anybody’s guess.
So to sum up then, yesterday’s joint statement includes specific steps to advance the tax reform effort this fall. Its call for ending the BAT and for considering tax reform under regular order are direct responses to criticisms that threatened to derail House consideration. And the significance of all three actors – the House, Senate, and Administration – coming together to craft a joint statement should not be lost among the details either. It is a commitment to get something done by the leaders of the government and should be taken seriously.
On the other hand, the brevity of the statement coupled with the Administration’s continued message muddle makes clear there’s lots of negotiating to come and many, many details to fill in. As we have discussed in the past, those details are important – they could spell the difference between a tax package that treats Main Street fairly, and one that leaves it behind. For that reason, we will be on the Hill pressing our case for fair treatment of all private businesses and the communities they serve.