After an intense campaign coordinated by some of Washington's most astute lobbyists, proponents of corporate tax leasing, one of the most controversial provisions of the Economic Recovery Tax Act, have picked up strong support, if not majorities, on two key congressional committees.
"There has been a very effective lobbying effort under way," Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.), chairman of the Finance Committee and one of the leading opponents of the provision, acknowledged yesterday. Dole has warned that he intends to seek repeal or modification retroactive to Feb. 19 of the provision, which is expected to cost the Treasury about $27 billion through 1986.
A number of supporters of the law allowing corporations to buy and sell tax breaks have joined forces around a proposal being circulated by Sen. David Durenberger (R-Minn.) that is designed to eliminate what are described as the "General Electric problem" and the "Occidental Petroleum situation."
General Electric capitalized so extensively on the corporate tax sale provisions that it not only effectively eliminated all 1981 tax liability, but also got a refund of about $100 million on prior years' taxes.
Occidental Petroleum, one of the nation's fastest growing and most profitable oil companies, was able to sell some of its tax breaks. Occidential has paid no federal tax in recent years because it benefits from another section of the code giving credits for payments of foreign taxes.
Durenberger aides contended that there currently are votes on the Finance Committee to support retention of a modified or "reformed" corporate tax leasing system, although it is not clear that all these votes are behind the Minnesotan's proposal.
Dole's chief aide on the committee, Robert E. Lighthizer, acknowledged that support for tax leasing has grown on the panel, but he said he is not sure it will survive when the committee, which will have to raise taxes by $20 billion to $25 billion in the drive to reduce the budget deficit, has to make choices between leasing and other taxes that effect broader constituent groups.
"I tell them: 'Remember, when all the lobbying is over, you have to cast a public vote for that,' " Lighthizer, the chief counsel, said. Surveys of public opinion show overwhelming opposition to tax leasing. A Harris poll showed the public supports repeal by a margin of 81 to 14.
Even if tax leasing were to survive in the Finance Committee, it would face very rough sledding on the floor of the full Senate. A very similar situation is developing in the House, where backing for tax leasing on the Ways and Means Committee is growing, according to a number of sources. There, if the provision were to survive, it would face strong opposition on the floor where many members have sponsored bills repealing it altogether.
There are two key groups pressing for retention of the leasing provision. One is an ad hoc alliance of Washington representatives of companies benefiting from leasing, including airlines, steel, mining and airplane builders. The group is being coordinated by John K. Meagher, vice president of the LTV Corp. and former minority counsel to the Ways and Means Committee.
The second, and overlapping, group has hired Charls E. Walker, one of Washington's most prominent business lobbyists, to coordinate a campaign.
Key elements of the Durenberger proposal are:
The "General Electric" provision. This would prohibit any firm from buying up tax credits to reduce federal tax liability by more than 50 percent. In addition, companies could not use purchased tax benefits to collect refunds on past years.
The "Occidental Petroleum" provision requiring companies to take foreign tax credits into account when determining taxable income before selling tax breaks.