In years past, breaks for corporations have often been hidden in the fine print of major tax legislation to avoid easy detection, like candy at an Easter egg hunt.
That wasn't the way House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer (R-Tex.) did it yesterday when he unveiled a far-reaching tax measure that boldly--and unabashedly--allocates billions of dollars of tax savings to defense contractors, multinational banks, steel companies, oil and gas developers, insurance companies and timber giants over the next 10 years.
Just about everything, from the proposed repeal of the excise tax on fishing tackle boxes to a provision putting weapons manufacturers on the same tax footing as other exporters, is right out in the open in the bill, which is more than 500 pages long.
One whole title of the bill is devoted to providing relief to U.S. multinational companies competing on the often-bumpy playing field of the global economy.
A single provision, which will enable American multinationals to increase the foreign tax credits they take on their U.S. tax returns--through a complicated reallocation of their interest deductions--would cost the Treasury an estimated $25 billion in lost revenue over 10 years.
"In terms of corporate tax relief, the vein of gold is in the international provisions," said Lawrence O'Brien of the Washington lobby shop O'Brien Calio.
The National Foreign Trade Council, which represents hundreds of multinationals, lobbied hard for the foreign tax credit provision. Also shepherding it was Price Waterhouse lobbyist Kenneth Kies, a longtime Archer confidant who served as chief of staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation until early 1998.
Kies said a number of Price Waterhouse clients, including General Motors Corp., sought the provision. "This bill moves in the direction of parity [with foreign countries] in the way we treat multinational companies," said Kies.
He predicted that there would be considerable Democratic support for efforts to reshape tax laws to keep U.S.-based global companies from moving their headquarters to more favorable tax climates abroad.
But the bill also includes a provision that President Clinton once vetoed. It would extend for five years the ability of U.S. banks, insurance companies and securities firms to defer paying taxes on profits from foreign sales until those profits are brought home.
Clinton used his newly acquired line-item veto authority to strike that concession from a 1997 tax bill. But after the Supreme Court ruled the line-item veto unconstitutional, a revised version of the provision was reinstated.
Treasury officials have argued against treating financial services companies in the same way as manufacturers because of the special ease with which they can move money between countries to exploit tax loopholes and advantages.
But extending the provision would save the industry about $1 billion a year in taxes, according to congressional estimates.
Defense industry lobbyists were jubilant yesterday that Archer's bill would allow military equipment exporters to exclude 15 percent of their income from taxation--the same as nondefense exporters.
Congress in 1976 reduced the exemption to half of what other exporters got, on the grounds that defense exports at the time were already heavily subsidized by the U.S. government.
But a "Coalition for Fairness in Defense Exports," made up of 12 industry groups, along with major defense contractors, argues that European, Russian and Asian competitors now have an advantage.
Northrop Grumman Corp. and Lockheed Martin Corp. lobbied actively for the change, sources said. But some defense companies reportedly are worried that the provision could escalate a dispute with the European Community, which recently filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization over the 15 percent U.S. exclusion.
"It's a gargantuan bill, but what you see is what you get," said O'Brien, a former Treasury official in the Carter administration. "They touched a lot of thematic issues here in terms of a Republican tax agenda."
That included gestures toward multinational companies and small businesses--both central to GOP fund-raising and election support.
The easing of estate taxes--a key reform in the Archer bill--has long been a major goal of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, a valued GOP constituency. At the same time, several sources noted, the Archer bill does not extend the tax credit for the development of wind and biomass power production--alternative energy sources with a constituency in the environmental movement and the Democratic Party.
Highlights of House GOP Tax Plan
Price tag: $864 billion over 10 years
Income tax reduction: A 10% across-the-board reduction in tax rates, phased in over 10 years. The 15%, 28%, 31%, 36% and 39.6% rates would be reduced to 13.5%, 25.2%, 27.9%, 32.4% and 35.64%, respectively.
Marriage tax penalty relief: 42 million married taxpayers would gain from doubling the standard deduction for joint returns. The average benefit would be about $243 per year.
Capital gains: Effective July 1, 1999, the maximum capital gains tax rate would drop from 20% to 15% on net capital gains from property held more than one year. For taxpayers in the 15% income tax bracket, the rate would drop from 10% to 7.5%.
Estate tax: Death taxes, with rates as high as 55%, would be phased out over 10 years.
Education tax relief: Allows tax-free expenditures from Education Savings Accounts for public and private elementary and secondary school tuition and expenses, as well as to cover higher education costs. Private colleges and universities for the first time could join state universities in offering pre-paid tuition assistance plans.
Health care and long-term care relief: Individuals who purchase health or long-term care insurance would be able to fully deduct premiums. The deductions will be phased in over 10 years. The plan provides taxpayers caring for elderly family members at home with an additional personal exemption.
Pension reforms: Increases contribution limits for so-called defined contribution and benefit plans and increases pension portability so employees changing jobs may roll over plans.
Savings and investments: Small-savers exclusion so that the first $200 (for singles) or $400 (joint filers) in interest earned on savings is not taxed.
Other measures: Phase out corporate and individual alternative minimum tax; breaks for small businesses and "distressed" industries; and extension of several expiring tax credits.
SOURCE: House Ways and Means Committee