The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and the Secretary of the Treasury yesterday warned the banking community that it faces the danger of higher taxes and other legislative reprisals if it continues an intense lobbying campaign to repeal 10 percent withholding on interest and dividend income.
"I'm not declaring war on banks, but it's fair to say we're looking for ways to broaden the tax base," Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.), the committee chairman, said during an exchange with Donald T. Regan, the Treasury secretary.
Dole noted that under existing law, the top 18 banks now have an average effective tax rate of 0.3 percent and implied that might be raised if the banks persist. "We think they ought to focus on something that really concerns them," he said.
Regan, in turn, echoed this arguement, noting that such provisions as the exemption for interest income from municipal bonds "is keeping their effective tax rates well below 10 percent," he said.
On Wednesday, Regan told another committee that the bank's legislative drive is "jeopardizing the tax exclusion they have. So I would say to bankers, they better go carefully in this area."
Regan's comments angered Sen. George Mitchell (D-Me.), who said the secretary of the Treasury is mandated to seek out the fairest possible tax laws, not to make threats against an industry. Regan denied his remarks constituted a threat.
The banking community, savings and loans and credit unions are conducting an intense drive to persuade Congress to kill a provision in the tax bill enacted last year that will require them to withhold 10 percent of most interest income starting on July 1.
The provision was a key element in the 1982 tax bill, and repeal would cost the Treasury an estimated $25 billion through 1988. The lobbying effort, however, is clearly picking up steam and, if repeal legislation were to come up on the floor of either the House or Senate, most participants believe it would pass.
In the House, 182 members have joined Rep. Norman E. D'Amours (D-N.H.) in support of a repeal measure, and 22 other similar bills are pending.
In addition to possible retaliation against the banking community with cutbacks in existing tax breaks, both Dole and Regan signaled that they might seek to slow or halt congressional action on two separate proposals: revision of the bankruptcy laws and increased U.S. support of the International Monetary Fund. Both are of key importance to the banking and credit industry.
Last year, Dole, who was the prime mover behind legislation raising taxes by $98 billion over three years, used similar tactics to protect the legislation. When the restaurant industry won a Senate floor fight to kill a provision requiring restaurants to report waiters' tip income, Dole added a provision even more threatening to the industry: halving the deduction for business lunches. The industry quickly reversed itself on the tip provision.
A spokesman for the American Banking Association contended that it would make no difference if the ABA withdrew from the lobbying drive because support for repeal has reached the "grassroots level" and the role of the trade association is no longer central.