Put your hand on your wallet and watch out. The same folks who gave us 1981's virtual repeal of the corporate income tax are at it again. Now they want the Treasury Department to start mailing checks to companies that have more tax breaks than they have profits to shelter.
Remember how the 1981 corporate tax "incentives" were going to produce an "investment-led recovery"--and how instead we got the first two-years-in-a-row drop in capital spending in the postwar era? Did you notice how the economy didn't start to recover until Congress partially reversed the 1981 policies by enacting the 1982 tax reform act?
Well, according to two of the principal architects of the 1981 debacle, the problem was that the original giveaways just weren't large enough. What we really need, contend Reps. Jim Jones and Barber Conable, is a system of outright cash payments to big business.
Jones and Conable were the original sponsors of the "10-5-3" corporate write-off scheme that President Regan eventually embraced, and they haven't changed their tune. In fact, they're still working with the same songwriter, lobbyist Charls E. Walker--the Johnny-one-note for corporate tax breaks.
This time around, promise the congressmen, $10 billion or so a year in "refundable" tax credits can "decisively turn around the decline in our aging industrial sector." They seem to have forgotten that the last time U.S. Steel, for example, had a big chunk of cash on hand it bought Marathon Oil.
"Refundability" isn't a new theme for lobbyist Walker. He pushed hard for it in 1981, but settled for the "buy-a-tax-break" leasing rules, after concluding that the public would be too confused to understand that "leasing" was simply back-door refundability. Of course, that political theory didn't quite pan out--a tidal wave of popular outrage quickly forced Congress to repeal leasing, although companies did manage to milk it for $10-$15 billion in the few months it was on the books.
Even without leasing, however, the business loopholes enacted in 1981 have proven so large that corporate tax payments have all but disappeared. For the first eight months of fiscal 1983, corporations chipped in a mere $16.8 billion in income taxes--4.5 percent of federal revenues and 3.1 percent of spending. To put this in perspective, as recently as fiscal 1980 corporations were paying three times as much in taxes in absolute (constant) dollars, and in the 1950s and 1960s corporate taxes supplied eight times as large a share of the cost of running the government.
With such a paltry current level of corporate tax payments, it's not surprising that many companies have far more tax breaks than they can use. Conable complains that in 1981 alone, basic industries made $42.4 billion in capital investments on which they were unable to take their full tax deductions and credits. His sense of order is apparently offended by such "waste" of valuable write-offs.
It's a shame a supposed fiscal conservative like Conable is not equally upset by the imbalance between federal spending and receipts. Or that he's not worried about rigging the tax code to make bad investments good and good ones bad--a clear result of the 1981 tax program and something refundability would make worse.
This year Congress has committed itself to raising $73 billion in new tax revenues over the next three years, and our legislators have to decide who will be asked to pay more. When Congress faced up to this problem in 1982, it refused to load up taxes on middle- and lower-income families. Instead, Congress began the painful process of cracking down on loopholes that allow many companies to pay little or nothing in taxes and took some needed steps to curb tax cheating. Since then, the economy has finally started to perform a little better.
In 1983, we need to continue this progress back toward fairness and economic common sense. Fortunately, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bob Dole, the working man's hero of 1982, has retained his enthusiasm for closing counterproductive loopholes. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski also appears to be paying attention to economic and fairness issues.
Although President Reagan says he is adamantly opposed to all tax hikes, his budget actually asks for about three-quarters of the tax increases Congress wants. Moreover, the president also seems to feel that closing loopholes--or in White House jargon "eliminating obsolete incentives"-- doesn't count as a tax increase.
Despite the persistent calls by the lobbyists and their congressional allies for more deficit-producing, economically harmful giveaways like refundable corporate tax credits, if Congress and the administration are to agree on a revenue- raising package this year, the one clear political opening is tax reform.