How corporate America is losing the debate on taxes


Jeffrey Immelt, chairman and chief executive officer of General Electric Co., which paid an effective tax rate of 4.2 percent last year. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

If there is one clear loser in President Obama's budget this year, it's U.S. multinationals.

With six new ideas designed to plug some major leaks in the tax code, the 2015 budget proposes a total of more than $276 billion in higher taxes on overseas earnings for U.S. multinationals over the next decade, about $120 billion more than last year's budget. (A sample of the policy just to give you an idea of how deep in the guts the administration is going: "Create a new category of Subpart F income for transactions involving digital goods or services.")

So much for the White House's attempts to strike common ground with big company chief executives, who have been howling for years about paying too much in taxes with the federal corporate tax rate at 35 percent. The companies have also poured money into an endless parade of coalitions with names like ACT, RATE, WIN, TIE AND LIFT.

The trouble with the executives' complaints is that many companies don't pay nearly the 35 percent rate. GE, for instance, in its most recent annual filing said it paid an effective tax rate of 4.2 percent. (See this graphic we ran last year showing taxes paid by companies in the Dow 30.) These firms insist that the high rate is merely forcing them to find complex ways to lower their tax bills.  But with this budget, it's clear the administration isn't buying it.

 "The problem is not an international tax system that unacceptably handicaps U.S. businesses," said Ed Kleinbard, a professor at the University of Southern California's Gould School of Law who has done extensive research on the way companies shuffle their income overseas to lower their tax bills. "Instead the problem is an international tax system both in the United States and other countries that U.S. multinational firms have demonstrated they are highly skilled at gaming."

The president's budget is the latest sign for corporate tax lobbyists that the winds are perhaps shifting against them. Last month's tax reform plan from House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) also included a number of ideas unpopular with business, including a bank tax. His section on international tax reform was somewhat more generous to big firms, giving them a lower rate on overseas earnings with anti-abuse measures that Kleinbard says don't go far enough.

Of course, expectations are low that either the president or Camp's policies will ever make the leap to reality. But after spending hundreds of millions of dollars on lobbyists, corporate America is not exactly seeing its worldview reflected in these blue prints.

Jia Lynn Yang is a staff writer at The Washington Post who covers policy and business. Before joining the Post, she worked at Fortune magazine.
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