With Corporate Tax Fight Brewing, Warren Warns Against Bailing Out Tax Dodgers

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With Corporate Tax Fight Brewing, Warren Warns Against Bailing Out Tax Dodgers

"The entire concept is a form of corporate blackmail: 'Give us our tax cut and nobody gets hurt, and you can fix a few roads'"

Senate Democrats Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren may find themselves at loggerheads over corporate taxes next session. (Photo: Senate Democrats/flickr/cc)

There's a huge corporate tax break brewing in Congress, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is warning against the plot, which she has called "a giant wet kiss for tax dodgers."

Both The Intercept and The New Republic wrote this month about percolating bipartisan plans for so-called corporate tax reform—"reform" that journalist David Dayen described in the latter as "a form of corporate blackmail."

Here's what's going on: American multinational corporations are scheming to hold onto the bulk of the $2.4 trillion they've stashed overseas, lobbying for a one-time "tax holiday" that would allow them to repatriate those earnings at a low tax rate. 

As Jon Schwarz points out for The Intercept: "Corporate America already got such a deal in 2004, when a tax holiday lowered the rate for repatriated profits to 5 percent. Overseas profits have since then re-accumulated on a gargantuan scale, and U.S. corporation[s] feel they have the leverage to cut a new deal that will go much further than in 2004."

But they want much more than that.

Dayen explains:

[L]iberals hate a one-time tax holiday because it loses tax revenue over time—and not just because of the lower rates. Buoyed by a windfall, corporations will have every incentive to keep hoarding cash overseas and make even domestic profits look like they are foreign, further draining the tax base. Under Congressional budget scoring rules, you can't "pay" for a federal program with a scheme that loses money.

The only way for the tax holiday...to actually pass Congress is to give corporations a permanent tax cut on their overseas profits, turning the tax-holiday concept into more of a perpetual tax vacation. Then, as a "transition" to the new system, money that's already been stashed abroad could get taxed and come home. 

According to both outlets, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer—who would become the next Senate Majority Leader if Democrats take control of the chamber—supports such a plan to essentially use the resulting revenue to fund infrastructure improvements. He is reportedly in talks with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to advance such a proposal in 2017. 

The Intercept reported last week that when CNBC's John Harwood asked Schumer if "it would be a permanent lower rate, not a holiday rate," Schumer replied: "Yes, you can't do a one-shot deal."

Furthermore, Dayen adds that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton seemingly "favors the scheme," pointing to recent WikiLeaks revelations as well as comments she made in the first presidential debate.

"But why would the U.S. political system, even as cowed as it is by money, agree to this?" Schwarz asks.

"That's where Corporate America's leverage comes in," he continues, answering his own query. "Their plan is to 'allow' the U.S. Congress to lightly tax their $2.4 trillion in overseas money and use that for infrastructure spending—as long as they get everything else they want."

Hence Dayen's "blackmail" accusation.

"Critical to this whole project is the idea that there's no other way to unlock the trillions of dollars sitting overseas—that we simply must give corporations a big tax cut in exchange for infrastructure funding," Dayen writes. "The entire concept is a form of corporate blackmail: 'Give us our tax cut and nobody gets hurt, and you can fix a few roads'."

But Warren, in an interview with the Huffington Post's Ryan Grim this weekend, "said it's a bluff, and recent activity around the globe suggests she's right."

"Developed countries are cracking down on the tax dodgers," the progressive senator told Grim. "You saw what just happened with the European Commission ordering Ireland to collect $14 billion in back taxes from Apple. Corporations are running out of places to hide, with the G20 and the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] working together to end international tax avoidance. So I just think that argument no longer holds much weight. Instead of bailing out the tax dodgers under the guise of tax reform, Congress should seize this moment to repair our broken tax code."

Warren made similar remarks in an op-ed last month, written in the wake of the EU's crackdown on Apple's tax evasion. At the time, she outlined three "crucial" steps Congress could take to reform the corporate tax code so companies pay their fair share.

"Now that they are feeling the sting from foreign tax crackdowns, giant corporations and their Washington lobbyists are pressing Congress to cut them a new sweetheart deal here at home," Warren wrote. "Giant corporations are pushing corporate tax reform proposals that offer a lower permanent tax rate for earnings generated abroad than earnings generated at home. That is nuts. Preferential tax treatment, either through special rates or deferred due dates, creates a huge financial incentive for American companies to build businesses and create jobs abroad rather than in the United States. Our tax code should favor jobs and businesses at home—period."

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