If one industry has emerged from the tax-overhaul debate as the symbol of all that is wrong with the current tax system, it is real estate.
Tax-writers regularly rail against "see-through buildings," or vacant office towers built as tax shelters. They quote a Treasury Department study showing that rich Americans avoided taxes on $29.5 billion in 1983 income by "sheltering" it in real estate partnerships.
Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) recently defended a special break for oil and gas drillers by saying: "It's not like buying a shelter in some real estate deal."
The tax bill before the Senate promises -- or threatens -- to turn the tables, removing most of real estate's legendary advantages. Less well known, though, is the equally dramatic effect the Finance Committee's tax bill is already having on the way that powerful industry lobbies the Congress. And as goes real estate, so go many other aggrieved businesses.
The tax bill before the Senate would so greatly reshape most real estate transactions that industry lobbies, hitherto known for their brazen pursuit of tax breaks, are conceding defeat on once-hallowed benefits, focusing instead on salvaging three or four incentives at the heart of their projects.
"What we're saying is: Okay, let's make this a more highly taxed industry," said J. McDonald Williams, managing partner of Dallas-based Trammell Crow Co., the nation's No. 1 commercial real estate developer. "It's a fundamental altering of the economics of the business, but we will figure out how to do business under the new system."
"We have entered the politics of limited expectations," said a sober Wayne Thevenot, president of the National Realty Committee, which represents 300 of the nation's larger developers, syndicators and financial institutions.
Moreover, for every tax benefit that Williams and Thevenot propose to restore, they vow to propose equivalent increases in taxes on other real estate transactions, rather than looking to other industries.
"We realize that if we don't come up with the money ourselves, we're not going to get anywhere," Williams said, acknowledging the austere ground rules of tax-overhaul.
The ill feelings of lawmakers toward real estate tax breaks are reflected in the Senate Finance Committee's bill. The industry's key tax advantages -- generous deductions for interest payments and depreciation, which on paper often exceed income from a project -- would be vastly curtailed.
Under existing law, buildings are written off for tax purposes within 19 years after they are purchased. Under the Senate bill, investors would have to deduct the cost of commercial buildings over 31 1/2 years.
The Finance Committee bill would virtually eliminate real estate tax shelters, preventing investors from writing off more in "losses" than they report in income from projects. This measure targets wealthy investors who have put billions of dollars into large partnerships, often without knowing what is being bought, using tax write-offs or "paper losses" to cancel out regular income on their tax returns.
However, it also hits full-time developers, who have real losses in the years before their buildings are fully rented.
Williams, Thevenot and others argue that the attack on real estate is unfair. They have been telling senators that legislative reforms enacted in 1982 and 1984 eliminated many abusive real estate shelters.
The Senate Finance Committee apparently was unconvinced. Its bill is significantly tougher on the industry than the House-passed version of last December, which at the time was denounced as a disaster for real estate.
Thevenot, who emceed a testimonial dinner for Sen. Russell B. Long (D-La.) this week, acknowledged this when he introduced House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.): "Since this [Finance Committee] bill has emerged, Mr. Chairman, you are respected anew as a voice of reason and moderation . . . . The good shepherds shear their sheep; they don't skin them."
It would have been unthinkable back in 1981, when the depreciation period for commercial buildings was only 15 years, for the real estate lobby to be acquiescing in a 31 1/2-year write-off schedule. But Williams and Thevenot said most members of the National Realty Committee accept that today, given the other problems they face in the bill.
They are asking the Senate to phase in the proposed limits on paper losses over a longer period of time, so as not to jeopardize deals arranged under existing tax laws. They are also pressing for an exception allowing full-time developers to take deductions for real cash losses.
And they are pressing to soften a tough minimum tax that could limit depreciation write-offs even beyond the proposed 31 1/2-year schedule.
This is not to say that the industry has been cowed. The realty committee dined privately this week with Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker, arguing that the Finance Committee measure would hurt banks that have backed large real estate projects.
And the lobby that gave almost $2 million to tax-committee members for the 1984 elections is hardly above using that weapon again. "I think there will be a new, more stringent criteria for who receives our beneficence," Thevenot said. "Maybe we'll shift from wishful thinking to post-hoc reflection."