In its two months of tax-writing, the House Ways and Means Committee produced a new version of tax revision, the fourth in the last 12 months, with new combinations of winners and losers in the business community.
Always divided over the merits and specifics of overhauling the tax code, Washington's lobbyists and technical analysts spent yesterday poring over the tax package completed by the committee early Saturday morning. When the results were in, some industries that had done well in previous versions were hurt, others had done better -- and many industries still hoped the whole idea of rewriting the tax code would just go away.
"The House Ways and Means bill has more bad news than good news for American manufacturing," said a statement by National Association of Manufacturers President Alexander S. Trowbridge. "While overall rate reduction is welcome, the enormous added costs resulting from changes in the investment tax credit, the depreciation schedules, the international taxation rules and other items pose extremely high risks for the economy."
General Motors Corp., which had worked with Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III and supported congressional efforts to curb deductions and lower rates, issued a veiled warning that "a great deal has been accomplished in the current effort to reform our archaic and inequitable tax system. Unfortunately, the results so far have not met the necessary goals for lower tax rates."
GM, like such other pro-revision manufacturers as Dart & Kraft Inc. and International Business Machines Corp., still favors the Ways and Means plan over the current tax code, officials said.
But a spokesman for Bethlehem Steel said, "It appears that the bill is very unfavorable to capital-intensive industries," not just because of changes in the depreciation schedule and elimination of the investment tax schedule, but "the entire bill itself."
Manufacturers got few concessions in the committee package, but the oil and gas industry fared significantly better than it did in the first Rostenkowski version proposed in September. Nonetheless, industry representatives generally criticized the plan.
"You have to begin by realizing . . . we're still in a private recession that started in 1982," said Lloyd Unsell, president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America. None of the provisions is acceptable to independent producers, although the plan is preferable to what committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) originally proposed for the oil and gas industries, Unsell said.
The American Petroleum Institute, which represents major oil companies, said in a statement that the petroleum industry is the most heavily taxed industry in the country. "Given those facts, we are deeply disturbed by the House Ways and Means Committee action on Nov. 20 which would tax the petroleum industry another $4.2 billion over five years," the API said in a statement. "This is a step in the wrong direction for the country."
However, Ways and Means agreed to lengthen the depreciation schedules over which utilities write off their investments: Transmission equipment would be depreciated over 30 years, coal-fired plants over 25 years and nuclear plants over 20 years. The transition rules to move from the old system to the new are more generous, giving utilities five years to adjust.
"It's a difficult mosaic," said Lowell Klosky of the Edison Electric Institute. A lower corporate tax rate (it was reduced from 46 percent to 36 percent) probably will result in lower costs to the consumer, but doing away with the investment tax credit and tightening depreciation "will hurt our ability to create cash flow."
Other business interests felt similar mixed emotions. Albert E. Abrams, senior vice president of government affairs for the National Association of Realtors, said the retention of the deduction for property taxes and the deduction for mortgage interest on second homes meant that demand for homeownership probably would not decline as it had been predicted to do under other plans.
But the loss of accelerated depreciation -- rental real estate would have to be written off over 30 years without any bunching of deductions in the early years -- could cut into investment in real estate.
Steven Wechsler of the National Realty Committee, which represents commercial developers, was more emphatic about the investment changes, saying that an industry study found that rents would have to rise 21 percent on an existing building and 35 percent on a new one to cover the loss of tax benfits and still give the developer the same amount of profit.
The world of finance, on the other hand, was grateful that tax-exempt bonds had been spared the sharp cutbacks proposed in the Treasury, Reagan and Rostenkowski proposals. Thomas M. Daly, vice president and manager of the bond department at Legg Mason in Baltimore said that, under the original Treasury proposal, which would have removed the tax-exempt status of many kinds of bonds, almost 60 percent of tax-exempt bonds would have been eliminated.
Under the Ways and Means plan, which limits the overall volume of bonds rather than removing the tax-exempt status of many, only 25 to 30 percent of the $110 billion to $120 billion in governmental and quasi-governmental issues would be wiped out.
Robert W. Chamberlin, first vice president for municipal bond research at Dean Witter, agreed, calling the Ways and Means bill an "improved situation" over the restrictions contained in the Treasury Reagan plans.
Even so, the impact of the limit would be to cut out one-third of the volume of issues in the nongovernmental sector. More important, he said, is the new 25 percent minimum tax on individuals, which would restrict the amount of tax-exempt interest that can be claimed by some high-income taxpayers.
"This will be the first time that the status of ownership will determine whether interest on a tax-exempt bond is taxable or not," he said.
Lower tax rates -- the top personal rate in the plan is 38 percent -- mean there will be less interest in tax-exempt income, all other things being equal, Chamberlin said. But restrictions on other kinds of shelters could improve the relative attractiveness of tax-exempts.
Insurance companies saw fewer trade-offs in the measure. Property-casualty insurance trade associations, for example, said they did not support the Ways and Means proposal.
The plan would impose a minimum tax of 20 percent on the industry in 1988, which would include in taxable income such items as tax-exempt interest and 100 percent of dividends paid from corporations to affiliated corporations. The minimum tax is intended to be an interim solution designed to force insurers to come back and negotiate major changes in the way they are taxed, industry and congressional officials agree.
"We're displeased that the House didn't work to a permanent solution," said Stephen W. Broadie, counsel to the the Alliance of American Insurers. "This is obviously a stop-gap solution designed to bring us back to the table." He also noted that the industry has suffered its worst financial year ever, yet other provisions would raise taxes on property and casualty firms.
Commercial banks, which pay a relatively low rate of tax and thus would be little helped by lower corporate rates, also were troubled by the measure. Chuck Wheeler, tax counsel for the American Bankers Association, said it did not achieve any of their three legislative priorities: preservation of the deduction for bad-debt reserves for big banks, no limitations on borrowing and then investing the money in tax-exempt bonds, and preserving current-law taxation of operations abroad.
Mark Clark, senior vice president for the U.S. League of Savings Institutions, said, "It's kind of a mixed bag. We have some real cases in which we're pleased," such as the preservation of the bad-debt deduction for S&Ls, and some negatives. For example, the corporate tax rate would be one percentage point higher than the 35 percent Rostenkowski originally had proposed. The industry would pay higher taxes under the proposals, but not by as much as officials had feared earlier, Clark said.
Service industries generally were more pleased with the package than other sectors of the economy. At the American Retail Federation, for example, Loyd Hackler said restrictions on tax treatment of installment sales could hurt, and retailers liked the Reagan plan (which had a corporate rate of 33 percent) better. But he added, "If I had to bet, I would bet we could find enough in it to continue some sort of support."
High-tech firms also stayed on board. At the American Electronics Association, tax analysts called the plan far better than the staff proposal that first emerged from Ways and Means.
The electronics industry, which pays a high tax rate, will be helped by lowering the overall corporate rate, the analysts said. The association also liked the retention of popular "401(k)" tax-deferred savings plans, because the industry has a shortage of skilled workers and needs all the benefits it can get to keep them.
The Computer Business Equipment Manufacturers Association offered a similar view, and analysts were pleased over the retention of the tax credit for research and development, which Rostenkowski originally wanted to wipe out.