Despite evaporating momentum for tax reform, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus began unveiling specific options for overhauling the tax code Tuesday, arguing that the issue may yet have “political potency.”
“Once we get the ball rolling, many are going to see, ‘Hey, maybe there’s something to this. Maybe there’s an opportunity there to help the country create jobs and therefore an opportunity for political benefit here,’ ” Baucus (D-Mont.) told reporters. “Because the goal here is to create jobs.”
Baucus opened with a topic specifically intended to spur interest: a revision of the tax laws governing foreign earnings. Both parties are keen to lower the 35 percent corporate tax rate and encourage companies to bring home roughly $2 trillion in profits now held overseas to avoid U.S. taxation.
To accomplish those goals, Baucus proposes lowering the corporate rate in the United States to something under 30 percent — he did not specify a precise target. He would also end the practice of deferral, which lets companies avoid U.S. taxes on foreign-earned profits until they bring the money home.
Instead, a 20 percent tax, payable over eight years, would be immediately imposed on accumulated profits that have benefited from deferral. That would encourage companies to bring the money home and pursue domestic investments, aides said, while producing a one-time windfall of more than $200 billion for the Treasury.
Future earnings derived from sales to the U.S. market would be taxed at the new, lower rate no matter where they were realized.
Income derived from sales and services to foreign markets would be taxed under one of two proposed systems.
Option Y would exempt that income entirely from U.S. taxation for companies already paying at least 80 percent of their potential U.S. tax bill to the foreign host government. Option Z would exempt 40 percent of that income and tax the rest at the new U.S. rate, with credits for taxes paid abroad.
Aides said Baucus also is considering a plan developed by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), known as Option C, as a “potential alternative framework.” That proposal, which has been criticized by Treasury officials but has gained traction in the business community, would target only foreign-earned income on intangible products such as patents for taxation in the United States.
Baucus presented the proposals to the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday morning and has asked for comments by Jan. 17. Democrats were generally noncommittal, while Republicans said they may be willing to work with Baucus on a bipartisan draft in the new year.
For now, however, Republican senators have agreed to withhold their cooperation while a bicameral budget conference committee works to fund the government past Jan. 15, a process that has been marked by Democratic calls for new tax revenue.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who serves on both the budget conference committee and the Senate Finance Committee, said Republicans decided to hold off on supporting any provisions in the tax reform proposal that could raise revenue so that those ideas “would not be co-opted by the budget committee.”
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), senior Republican on the Finance Committee, said he hopes to “renew our discussions to determine whether we can find common ground to overhaul our tax code” once the budget conference completes its work.
Camp, whose efforts to advance tax reform have stalled in the House, praised Baucus’s decision to move forward, as did Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.
The business community was less enthusiastic.
Baucus’s proposal “would make many American companies even less competitive than their non-U.S. counterparts,” John Engler, president of the Business Roundtable, said in a written statement.
Baucus plans to follow Tuesday’s release with two more proposals this week.
One will offer ideas for strengthening enforcement of existing tax laws and closing a “tax gap,” estimated at more than $300 billion a year. The other will deal with rules that permit businesses to recover their costs, such as depreciation.
Aides said Baucus may not forge ahead with more controversial aspects of tax reform that could sharply limit popular tax breaks for individuals, such as deductions for mortgage interest and charitable donations. Neither Democrats who control the Senate nor Republicans who control the House are interested in pursuing tax reform right now, in part because of those potentially painful details.
Such issues are more political than technical and could be resolved later in the legislative process, aides said. Still, with Baucus fighting to persuade his own leadership to move forward, many analysts are questioning the viability of his campaign, especially with midterm elections looming in less than a year.
Baucus said he is nonetheless dedicated to moving forward.
“Camp wants to go ahead, too, and at the appropriate time, I think he will,” said Baucus, who plans to retire at the end of next year and hopes to add a comprehensive rewrite of federal tax laws to his legacy.
“I’m just trying to make something happen by taking the initiative,” he said. “Getting going here. Getting started. We’ve spent nearly three years working on this. It’s time to move.”