LOBBYING BY MULTI-NATIONAL CORPORATIONS UNDERMINES TAX FAIRNESS & INCREASES THE DEFICIT

The actual effects of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) (the December 2017 tax cut bill rushed through by Republicans in Congress and President Trump) are becoming clearer all the time. My previous post provided a summary of what it did, noted the promises that were made about its effects, and provided an overview of its actual effects.

One result has been that the promise to tax the profits of multinational corporations more fairly remains largely unachieved. This was supposed to be accomplished by increasing taxes on profits shifted to overseas entities and by incentivizing corporations to repatriate trillions of dollars of profits previously stashed overseas.

Because the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was rushed through Congress in a process some experts have called chaotic, it was sloppily written and left lots of details to be filled in by the executive branch agencies writing the rules and regulations implementing the law. (Congressional Republicans and Trump wanted to be able to claim a major legislative victory for their first year in full control of the federal government and to reward their wealthy campaign donors in the run-up to the 2018 elections.) Corporations had lobbied heavily during the writing and passage of the TCJA and they continued to lobby for favorable treatment during the process of writing TCJA’s rules and regulations.

The sloppiness and lack of detail in the law meant that lobbying for favorable rules and regulations was a potential gold mine for the big multi-national corporations. Therefore, in early 2018, shortly after the TCJA was enacted, the Treasury Department, a key agency writing rules and regulations, was swamped by corporate lobbyists. Reportedly, senior Treasury officials were having so many meetings with lobbyists, up to 10 a week, that they had little time to do their jobs.

The TCJA was supposed to be a grand bargain between the federal government and the big multi-national corporations where a big cut in the tax rate (35% to 21%) would occur in exchange for a reduction in tax dodging through the shifting of profits to low-tax offshore locations. Two new taxes were included in the TCJA to fulfill the second half of this bargain: BEAT and GILTI. The Base Erosion and Anti-abuse Tax (BEAT) targeted foreign corporations with major U.S. operations that had been dodging U.S. taxes by shifting profits from their U.S. subsidiaries to their foreign parents. Some payments sent to foreign parents would now be subject to a new 10% tax. The Global Intangible Low-Taxed Income tax (GILTI) targeted U.S. corporations that shifted profits offshore. Some of these offshore profits would be subject to a new tax of up to 10.5%.

At the time of the passage of the TCJA, it was projected that these two new taxes would generate about $26 billion a year of revenue for the federal government. However, lobbying on the writing of rules and regulations has succeeded in significantly reducing the taxes that will be paid. [1] In the lobbying on BEAT and GILTI rules and regulations, the revolving door has been very evident. For example, the senior Treasury official who has been writing them had previously spent decades at a consulting firm and a law firm where he guided corporations in using the tax avoidance strategies BEAT and GILTI were supposed to stop. Lobbyists from the firms he used to work for were lobbying him for rules that were favorable for their corporate clients. One of them had been a top Treasury official in the G. W. Bush administration.

A small group of foreign banks lobbied heavily against BEAT. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, a longtime bank executive before taking his job at the Treasury, supported the regulatory loophole the foreign banks were asking for. Furthermore, one of the banks’ lobbyists joined the Treasury Department in September 2019 to work in the office that was writing the TCJA rules!

In December 2019, the Treasury Department issued final versions of some of the BEAT regulations and the corporations, foreign banks, and their lobbyists got most of what they wanted. The loophole for the foreign banks alone is estimated to reduce BEAT revenues by $5 billion a year. Experts estimate that BEAT, given the rules and regulations promulgated after all the lobbying, will produce a small fraction for the $15 billion a year that it was projected to raise. [2]

The lobbying around GILTI’s rules and regulations was similarly intense. As background, many multi-national corporations, including Apple, Google, Facebook, Coca-Cola, and drug companies Pfizer and Merck, use elaborate legal, financial, and accounting strategies to make it appear that sizable chunks of their profits are earned by subsidiaries in low-tax offshore countries such as Ireland, the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, or Luxembourg. For example, the drug and technology corporations shift the rights to their patents and other intellectual property (such as trademarks, logos, and copyrights) to offshore subsidiaries. Then these subsidiaries charge their U.S. parent corporations very high licensing fees, which, on paper, shift profits to these offshore entities.

In June 2019, the Treasury Department announced rules and regulations that greatly reduced the profits subject to GILTI’s new taxes, reducing corporate taxes by tens of billions of dollars. This increases the federal deficit while allowing multi-national corporations to continue to shift hundreds of billions of profits to offshore tax havens.

Finally, the multi-national corporations have repatriated far less of the profits they had previously stashed overseas than the projected $4 trillion; only about $1 trillion has been repatriated and therefore subjected to U.S. taxes. Once again, this has substantially reduced the amount of new tax revenue the federal government received, increasing the deficit further beyond the promised level.

The overall result of all the corporate lobbying during the writing of TCJA’s rules and regulations has indeed been a gold mine for multi-national U.S. and foreign corporations. The Treasury’s rules and regulations mean that these multi-national corporations will pay little or nothing in new taxes on profits shifted offshore, saving them tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development reported that in 2018 the U.S. had the largest drop in tax revenue among its 36 member countries and had the largest federal budget deficit of any of the countries by a wide margin. [3]

The Treasury Department is likely to finish the last set of rules and regulations for the TCJA shortly. The multi-national corporations have continued their intense lobbying through the fall and some of the U.S.-based ones have even threatened to move their headquarters overseas if the rules and regulations don’t further cut the new taxes BEAT and GILTI were supposed to impose.

The result of the multi-national corporations’ lobbying has been rules and regulations for implementing the BEAT and GILTI taxes that:

  • Significantly reduce the revenue for the federal government from what was projected and, therefore, increase the federal budget deficit much more than what TCJA proponents promised;
  • Dramatically undermine the effort to increase tax fairness; and
  • Have made the supposedly even-handed grand bargain for the big corporate tax rate cut very one-sided.

[1]      Drucker, J., & Tankersley, J., 12/30/19, “How big companies won new tax breaks from the Trump Administration,” The New York Times

[2]      Drucker, J., & Tankersley, J., 12/30/19, see above

[3]      Drucker, J., & Tankersley, J., 12/30/19, see above

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