“The American tax code is an anti-competitive mess.” Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) of the Senate Finance Committee stated the complicated problem quite simply in his opening remarks for the hearing titled “The U.S. Tax Code: Love It, Leave It or Reform It!” On July 22nd, the committee heard testimony from six witnesses on the recent flood of corporate inversions. Dozens of U.S.-based companies have decided to acquire competitors abroad in order to relocate their headquarters and lower their tax bills. U.S. corporations pay the highest income tax rate among OECD countries at 35 percent. When state taxes are included, U.S.-based businesses bear on average a 39.1 percent tax burden. In comparison, the OECD tax average is 25 percent, putting American businesses at a disadvantage.
The first witness, Robert Stack who is Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Tax Affairs at the Department of the Treasury, made the statement upon which everyone could agree: “there is universal consensus that our rate is too high.” Obviously, the high U.S. corporate tax rate compared to other developed nations is the primary reason for corporate flight, yet disagreement remains on how to solve the problem. Chairman Wyden highlighted the issue facing Congress today, that “tax reform is moving slowly, inversions are moving rapidly.” For that reason he would prefer to enact punitive, retroactive laws to attempt to stop inversions immediately. Two such bills, S. 2360 in the Senate and H.R. 4679 in the House would seek to prevent further inversions in the short term by changing the IRS criteria for being considered inverted, based on the portion of stock the foreign entity holds and the volume of business activities which continue in the U.S. Both bills would be retroactive to May 8, 2014, but S. 2360 would sunset in two years, whereas H.R. 4679 would be permanent.
The Finance Committee’s Ranking Member Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) would rather see immediate, comprehensive correction of the tax system. While Congress generally moves slowly, especially on taxation, the rapid loss of the tax base could be the impetus needed to force an overhaul. Sen. John Thune (R-SD) agreed, not wanting to punish corporations for leaving because “when you make bad rules, you get bad outcomes.” Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) also felt “this is an opportunity for us to encourage solving the problem rather than dealing with the symptom.” Medical analogies were used to illustrate the issue, describing a short-term fix as a tourniquet which will stem the flow to allow for time to deliberate over changes to the tax code. However, as one witness mentioned, if the tourniquet is left on for too long with no resolution to the underlying problem, the result will be gangrene.
The witnesses floated a number of ideas on how to reform the tax code to discourage inversions. For instance, the U.S. could switch to a territorial tax system, in which the IRS would only tax multinational corporations for the income they generate domestically. One witness, Dr. Leslie Robinson, a business professor at Dartmouth, suggested simply ending deferral and lowering the rate. Either choice could improve upon the system currently in place. All business owners search for cheaper inputs to lower their costs and increase profits, and the U.S. tax burden has been targeted as an input well worth adjusting.
One reason corporate inversion is generating greater attention now is the consequent loss of tax revenue for the government. With mounting debt and yearly deficits, Congress and the White House cannot bear to see taxpaying companies move elsewhere. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew outlined these concerns in a letter he sent to Sens. Wyden and Hatch and Reps. Dave Camp (R-MI) and Sander Levin (D-MI), who are Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Ways and Means Committee. Secretary Lew stated that, “What we need is a new sense of economic patriotism,” and “We should not be providing supporting for corporations that seek to shift their profits overseas to avoid paying their fair share of taxes.” He implies that the current tax rate constitutes a “fair share,” but corporations considering inversion clearly view it differently. When operating abroad, U.S. multinationals face the same taxes that other corporations pay, but to bring profits home, they must comply with a much higher tax. The federal government has caused this problem through their own mishandling of the tax system, and now it is time for a permanent fix.