Leaders of some of the nation's largest businesses say they are willing to go along with the Senate Finance Committee's proposed rewrite of the federal tax code, at least in the form that it emerged from the panel this week.
The committee's bill, which would reduce tax rates in exchange for eliminating many popular tax breaks, even has won tentative approval of some longtime corporate opponents of so-called tax reform, according to chief executives attending a quarterly meeting of the Business Council here.
Such support will be essential to building the "broad coalition" of consumer, business and labor support that the bill's chief author, Finance Chairman Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), says is needed to push the measure into law.
"What's different about this tax bill is a very significantly lower rate" for corporate and personal income taxes, said Chase Manhattan Bank Chairman Willard C. Butcher
"I have historically been somewhat skeptical of tax reform," said Butcher, who added that his major concern about past tax-overhaul proposals was their potentially negative effect on investment tax credits and other corporate breaks.
But Butcher said that his "negativism has been tempered" in considering the Packwood proposal, because the bill's "give-up on the preference side is really offset by the very significant lower tax rate."
The Senate committee's tax bill would cut the top personal tax rate nearly in half, to 27 percent, and reduce the top corporate tax rate by one-third, to 33 percent.
"I think it's important to understand that I lean towards the present version, and not towards a version that gets changed materially" in still-to-come congressional wrangling, Butcher said.
The Business Council, composed of chief executive officers of U.S. businesses, is an advisory group that, upon request, works with the government in solving problems affecting national interests.
The council itself passed no judgment on the Packwood proposal. Indeed, the Senate Finance Committee's 20-0 vote Wednesday approving the measure caught the council's economic advisers by surprise, knocking out the third of five key assumptions underlying the council's generally rosy economic forecast for the next two years.
That assumption was there would be "no tax reform bill this year."
James D. Robinson III, chairman of American Express Co. and vice chairman of the Business Council, said the Packwood bill's proposed tradeoff between lower tax rates and fewer tax breaks "could stimulate consumer spending," but probably will do little "to help the slump we're living through in terms of capital spending" by the nation's manufacturing industries.
Exactly how the tax bill would affect the council's two-year economic forecast depends on when the bill is passed and what provisions it contains when it finally is approved, Robinson said.
Robinson and others attending the council meeting said that the timing of the transition period between approval of the bill and its effective date will help to determine Big Business' enthusiasm for the kind of tax rewrite proposed by the Senate committee.
"If it were a bill close to the Packwood bill, and if it had reasonable transition rules, I would support it," said Phillip M. Hawley, chairman of Carter Hawley Hale Stores Inc., which is based in Los Angeles.
Roger B. Smith, chairman of General Motors Corp., said, "I think the country has a chance that I haven't seen in 25 years to get real tax reform, and we support it."
Smith also said that he is not worried about the elimination of certain business tax preferences under the Packwood bill.
"I think it's time to quit using the tax policy as an economic tool," he said. "If you want to subsidize farmers, subsidize farmers, but don't do it through tax policy."
Edmund T. Pratt Jr., chairman of Pfizer Inc., a pharmaceutical manufacturer based in New York, disagreed with Smith.
"I have consistently been against the whole idea of radical tax reform," Pratt said. "This bill is an interesting bill, and it looks like everybody wins. It has a lure to it."
But Pratt said "it concerns me" that the Packwood proposal "would throw out 50 years of evolution of tax policy in one fell swoop. . . . I think we're trying to do too much too fast."