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Paul Ryan Seeks to Strengthen Safety Net
Posted By: Dan Barrett - 07/25/14

Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI), the Chairman of the House Committee on the Budget, recently spoke at the American Enterprise Institute about strengthening the safety net for disadvantaged and unemployed Americans.  Specifically, he reflected on the state of public benefits for the poor and how, through his proposal of an Opportunity Grant pilot program, welfare programs could be greatly improved.  The transcript and recorded video can be found here.

The Opportunity Grant would streamline existing sources of federal funding into one program.  States could then apply for that funding, and would be eligible for federal assistance so long as the anti-poverty initiatives receiving the support adhered to certain guidelines:

  1. Tax dollars must be spent on people in need, not infrastructure or other projects. 
  2. If benefits recipients are capable of working, they must do so. 
  3. There is to be a choice available for people to receive help, whether the alternatives are non-profit or for-profit groups (i.e. the state welfare agency must not be the only option that people can turn to).
  4. The results must be measured by a third party to ensure that progress is being made.

Overall, Congressman Ryan’s theme is to allow the federal government to support state programs, not to supplant their efforts.  Since the Great Society programs of the 1960s, many local efforts have become dependent on federal funds, thus becoming defacto federal operations. Congressman Ryan’s proposal is an attempt to address that by making federal welfare funding streams more efficient.

Another proposal from Congressman Ryan is to increase the Earned Income Tax Credit for childless workers.  This would be accomplished by lowering the minimum eligibility from 25 to 21 and to double the maximum credit to $1,005. To pay for this reform, he would not raise taxes but instead cut funding for less effective government programs, such as subsidies for renewable energy businesses.  His goal is to “stop programs that don’t work and support the programs that do”.

Congressman Ryan also addressed the need to expand access to education.  By bringing “more competition to the college cartels” through accreditation reform, the cost of schooling could be reduced as more educational institutions are available.

Criminal justice reform was also discussed at the event, particularly as it related to helping non-violent offenders contribute to the economy.  Instead of convicting those individuals for maximum sentences, Congressman Ryan proposed counseling and work programs in order to reduce recidivism and prepare them to enter the workforce.

He concluded by proposing to cut regulatory red tape by requiring that future regulations be approved by Congress.  If a regulation disproportionately affects low-income families, then the agency would be required to defend it on record for its actions.  In a bid to improve collaboration between government and taxpayers, Congressman Ryan invited anyone to comment on his proposals via an email to

After the Chairman spoke, there was a roundtable discussion which included Ron Haskins, Stuart Butler, and Bob Woodson.  Along with the Congressman, each expert emphasized different aspects of aiding Americans in poverty. Bob Woodson noted that the poor in America face different barriers to economic prosperity. “Both people on the left and the right have myths about the poor,” he said, and categorizing people only as victims does not help individuals overcome challenges posed by poverty.  The discussion conveyed the need to collaborate and to focus on solutions that are proven to be successful for lifting Americans out of financial difficulty.

The problem is not just academic.  According to the 2012 report by the U.S. Census Bureau, 48.5 million Americans live in poverty, 16 million of whom are children. Though the federal government spent over $1 trillion in 2012 on 80 (oftentimes overlapping) welfare programs, poverty continues to be a major economic issue. Legislators have always proposed reforms but many measures attempt to address the symptoms of poverty, rather than the root causes (education, health, and skills being major factors). On paper, much of what Congressman Ryan presented could help the disadvantaged, but they face significant political obstacles within the halls of Congress and the White House. By decreasing the costs of anti-poverty efforts while lowering the numbers of those actually in poverty, taxpayers and those in poverty both win. The question is whether or not Congress will choose to continue spending money on entrenched programs rather than take further risks on new ones.

Thanks to Ian Johnson for drafting this post.

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Corporate Inversion: Fleeing from the Terrifying Tax Code
Posted By: Melodie Bowler - 07/24/14

“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.

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Operation Choke Point: Closing Legal Businesses
Posted By: Melodie Bowler - 07/24/14

On July 17th, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law held a hearing on Operation Choke Point (OCP), a program within the Department of Justice (DOJ). The first witness, Assistant Attorney General Stuart Delery of the DOJ Civil Division, stated OCP’s objective is to identify and prevent fraudulent merchants and payment processors from accessing financial services. An obscure program until recently, OCP is gaining recognition for the questionable manner of its investigations. Thus far, the DOJ has sent fifty subpoenas to financial institutions, largely local banks and credit unions, requesting information on their customers. Only one of the cases has closed, the remaining are ongoing.

When questioned by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), Delery agreed that the subpoenas he sent are not meant to change routine banking operations. Since the inception of OCP, however, businesses in particular industries have reported being denied loans or having their long-standing bank accounts closed. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) published a list of “high risk” industries (including businesses as diverse as firearms sales, home-based charities, coin dealers, and dating services), but Delery denied any connection between that list and DOJ objectives. Upon further scrutiny of the issued subpoenas, which Delery signed, Rep. Issa found a truncated version of the FDIC’s list attached to each one. Somehow, Delery still denied a connection between OCP-DOJ objectives and the FDIC list.

Whether intending to or not, by including the list in the subpoenas and effectively endorsing FDIC “recommendations,” the DOJ has caused banks to rethink their clientele in order to maintain compliancy with the federal government. Subcommittee Chairman Spencer Bachus (R-AL) mentioned a letter circulated to lawmakers last fall, in which one bank claimed it was threatened with an audit if it agreed to service an online lender. Another said the FDIC refused to close an audit unless the bank stopped certain payment processing. Despite these accounts, Delery continued to insist the DOJ is innocent. He stated that his department is making efforts to explain to financial institutions that they are not discouraging legal business, but encouraging due diligence.

As Rep. Issa illuminated in the hearing, the FDIC list was created based on “ideological decisions of what is high risk rather than economic.” For businesses whose accounts were closed, the basis had nothing to do with a change in their risk profiles and was instead predicated on a change in bureaucratic opinion. It is far less costly for banks to drop unfavorably-viewed clients now, than to respond to subpoenas later. In the subpoenas that were already issued, the DOJ requested the banks’ documents from each merchant’s account for every month in which they had a return rate of 3 percent or more, despite Delery’s admission that fraud is indicated by return rates of 30 percent or more. Delery could not attest to the cost of compliance with such a request. Another witness, David Thompson, representing short-term lenders, said the cost can be in the hundreds of thousands. For small banks and credit unions, the new expense of servicing these legal yet “high risk” businesses makes them no longer profitable, resulting in closed accounts.

Fitting with the hearing’s title, “Guilty Until Proven Innocent,” the panel uncovered that the DOJ is targeting banks for serving legal industries, rather than investigating specific cases of fraud within individual businesses. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) described the problem in his opening statement, clarifying that Operation Choke Point does stop some fraud, but there are too many casualties.

For more information, Michael Ligouri’s blog covers the House Financial Services Committee’s hearing on July 15th, and Brandon Arnold’s blog overviews the operation as a whole.

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Senate to Debate ‘Carrot & Stick’ Approach to Moving Jobs Abroad; San Francisco City Leaders Approve of “Soda Tax” – Late Edition, July 24
Posted By: Jihun Han - 07/24/14

Today's Taxpayer News!

The Senate will debate on a bill that would give tax credits (the carrot) to companies that bring jobs home from outside the country; and slap a higher tax bill (the stick) on those who don’t “bring them back” to the U.S. Read here for more!

San Francisco city leaders voted to approve a tax on soda and other sugary beverages. The measure will now be on the ballot in November for voters to decide. Reuters has the latest! 

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Two Different Court of Appeal Rulings on Obamacare; House Investigators Believe Lois Lerner Emails Can Be Recovered – Late Edition, July 23
Posted By: Jihun Han - 07/23/14

Today's Taxpayer news! 

On Tuesday, a U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that federal-run health exchanges are not eligible for subsidies. However, a few hours later another appeals court upheld the current laws of the Affordable Care Act. NTU VP Brandon Arnold explains why the first decision is more important.  Read here for more!

More on the IRS scandal, House investigators revealed on Tuesday that the emails in the hard drive was damaged but not “destroyed”. Some GOP lawmakers talked to IRS tech experts and said the emails can be recovered.

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Profiles in Liberty: Michael Liguori
Posted By: Dan Barrett - 07/23/14

The National Taxpayers Union’s (NTU) Government Affairs interns are enjoying their eighth week at NTU headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia. Government Affairs interns have the opportunity to attend hearings and meetings with NTU staff and Members of Congress, and participate in NTUF’s lunch discussion series, where interns meet with experts from many different fields and discuss current issues in public policy.  Like NTUF, NTU takes a very holistic approach to their internship program, focusing on providing interns with the best skills and knowledge to make a difference in the world of public policy.

NTU Government Affairs Intern Michael Liguori

In the last of our intern interviews, we focus on NTU Government Affairs intern Michael Liguori. Michael is currently enrolled at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, where he is pursuing a degree in International Relations and minors in Economics and Arabic. In the past, Michael has worked at an international agricultural development nonprofit, building inexpensive machines and tools to help improve subsistence farming output. Michael hopes to work in foreign affairs someday, and is particularly interested in diminishing the conflict in the Middle East and North Africa.

What have you most enjoyed about living and working in the DC area?

ML: Although I enjoy going to briefings and hearings on Capitol Hill, what really astounds me is what happens off the clock.  I can sit in a coffee shop and hear State Department employees arguing over major international events, and I can brush past a former Speaker of the House while getting a burger

How did you become interested in politics?

ML: My parents are very freethinking people, and they encouraged me and my siblings to be as well. I was a curious kid, and if I asked them a question about what a Supreme Court decision in the news meant, they would tell me I had to figure it out on my own. We don’t have dogmas in my house, and that really left a lot of room for my beliefs to grow.

Who is your political hero?

ML: I get a lot of weird looks when I say it, but Malcom X.  Even when I completely disagree with his writings and opinions (which happens quite frequently), I still recognize and admire that he was an uncompromising advocate against injustice.  When other civil rights leaders sat down and stayed quiet, he stood up and shouted for justice under the law. No one could scare him into submission, and I can’t think of a courage that is more admirable. 

What have you enjoyed about working at NTU?

ML: I’ve really enjoyed working with Federal Government Affairs Manager, Nan Swift, and getting to be at the Capitol so frequently. It’s a completely invaluable part of the experience as a Government Affairs Intern at NTU. My usual day consists of updating staff on state tax news, writing blog posts, and drafting vote alerts for bills such as the Permanent Internet Tax Freedom Act.  In addition, if there are any relevant meetings on Capitol Hill that need to be covered, I handle those.

What have you learned which has most interested you while working at NTU?

ML: I’ve learned how convoluted and cryptic Congressional procedure can be.  Most people don’t understand the nuances of the politics of passing a bill into law. One of the best examples I can think of to illustrate the intricate and unpredictable nature of Congressional politics is the Permanent Internet Tax Freedom Act.  This bill passed the House of Representatives as a tax-decreasing bill.  In the Senate, however, the Majority Leader added an unrelated amendment which increases taxes.  After working at NTU, I have a much better understanding of Congressional proceedings thanks to the experience of attending hearings and collaborating with Nan and Brandon Arnold, NTU’s Vice President of Government Affairs.

Why did you choose to work at NTU?

ML: Although I generally focus more on foreign affairs, I wanted to get an understanding of Washington politics.  The thought of taking people on tours and answering constituent phone calls for a Congressional office didn’t strongly appeal to me, so I chose to work at NTU.  Working at NTU helps me understand the more substantive undercurrents that move politicians and politics.

Be sure to read our previous interview with research intern Catherine Fitzhugh.

Thanks to Catherine Fitzhugh for developing the Profiles in Liberty series and interviewing our interns.

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Dueling Obamacare Decisions: The Law Must Trump Bureaucracy
Posted By: Brandon Arnold - 07/22/14

Today’s Halbig v. Burwell decision at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit represents a massive rebuke of the Obama Administration’s interpretation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) or “Obamacare.”

Keep in mind that this is the same Administration that has seen its attempts to expand executive power rejected unanimously on 12 separate occasions by the Supreme Court.

Now another federal court has ruled that Obama’s Administration has gone too far. The court stated that the IRS does not have legal authority to provide tax credits to nearly 5 million people who have attempted to purchase health insurance through the federal government’s exchanges at The impact to taxpayers is significant, as the cost of these credits could amount to more than $36 billion through 2016 (according to a study by the Urban Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation).

To some, that might seem to be a “dog bites man” story – after all, the federal government makes approximately $100 billion in improper payments each and every year. But while these improper payments stem from unacceptably high levels of waste, fraud and abuse, in the matter ruled on in Halbig the illegal subsidies occur due to open disregard for the law of the land.

This is a disregard the Administration doubled down on today, stating it intends to ignore the DC Circuit Court ruling and continue to allow the subsidies to flow, continuing to cost taxpayers billions.

And here the term “subsidies” is appropriate. Some tax credits simply allow people and companies to reduce their liabilities to the IRS. But these “premium tax credits” are a different breed because they're refundable -- meaning they can more than wipe out the beneficiary's tax bill and cover all the cost of providing the insurance.

That means the refundable portion effectively amounts to deficit spending by the government, not just foregone revenues. Future taxpayers are being stuck with cost.

That despite the fact the ACA clearly and repeatedly states that subsidies can be obtained by individuals who purchase insurance “through an Exchange established by the State.”

Similar language appears or is referenced nine times in the ACA. For those who purchase insurance through federally established exchanges, there are no benefits provided for in the law.

But that has, to date, not stopped Obama’s IRS from providing tax benefits to individuals in the 36 states where there is no state-created exchange – and this is where taxpayers could continue to suffer billions of dollars of losses. 

The D.C. Circuit Court ruling was a big one for taxpayers, but the legal battle will certainly continue for some time. Just hours after the decision was issued, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also ruled on the matter. This court found the law's legislative language to be ambiguous and thus, allowed the IRS to exercise its own discretion.

The dueling decisions mean the U.S. Supreme Court will likely make a final judgment on the matter, but there's no doubt that Halbig has put a chill on feverish claims that the IRS can essentially construct its own statutory powers by pulling words out of thin air and issuing regulatory edicts.

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High Corporate Taxes: One Explanation for America’s Painful Recovery
Posted By: Michael Liguori - 07/22/14

Just looking at the numbers, June seemed like an example of strong economic recovery, with the Dow growing, unemployment shrinking, and more jobs entering the economy. However, writing in The New York Sun economist Lawrence Kudlow found some problems brewing in the seemingly positive June jobs report:

But there were some important glitches in this good-news report. For one, worker wages remained soft, rising only 2% over the past 12 months. Total hours worked are 2.1% ahead of a year ago, suggesting that overall income and nominal GDP are growing at a relatively slow 4% rate.

Meanwhile, the U6 unemployment rate, which includes part-time workers who want better full-time jobs or folks who have given up, dropped only slightly to 12.1%. That’s still a historically high rate. And the labor-force participation rate was unchanged at 62.8%, a 30-year low.

One of the problems Kudlow highlights is that unemployment goes down in two ways—either more people are employed, or more people stop looking for work. He notes that while, “2.15 million people gained employment in June, 2.35 million dropped out of the labor force.” In order for the economy to have true increases in employment, businesses need to be able to freely add more positions to their payrolls. The answer to this problem is simple: stop holding the market back, and lower the corporate tax rate. With the highest effective corporate tax rate in the developed world, the U.S. is making itself into a much less desirable home for the kind of lucrative corporations that provide the economic growth that Americans need.

Kudlow cites a dynamic economic model released by the Tax Foundation that demonstrates the market potential currently being restrained by the 35-40% corporate tax. Cutting the tax to 25% would, “over ten years raise real GDP by more than 2 percent, increase private business-capital investment by more than 6%, boost worker wages by 2%, and increase total federal revenues by nearly 1%.”

In June, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed regarding the fact that numerous corporations are doing exactly as feared and choosing to leave America in favor of kinder tax rates in places like Ireland, and why shouldn’t they? Medical technology firm Medtronic is planning to shift its principal executive offices to Ireland, which boasts a corporate tax of 12.5%, and according to The Wall Street Journal, corporate friendly countries are numerous.

Ireland isn't the only place with a more competitive tax policy. The near-40% U.S. average rate is almost double the 21% average in the European Union, or the 22% in Asia, according to KPMG. As we noted recently, about the only place outside of captive Marxist countries with a higher corporate tax rate than the U.S. is the United Arab Emirates. But its top rate of 55% is generally applied only to foreign oil companies.

By overtaxing, we are intentionally sending jobs, wealth and innovation away from the United States. The corporations that the current tax-and-spend administration seems so eager to hold back are the very entities that can bring vitality to the struggling American economy. Relieving them of excessively high tax burdens relieves the American people and helps put the economy on the road to recovery. The rest of the world knows this, and it’s high time our government caught up.

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Improper Payments Cost Taxpayers Billions
Posted By: Michael Tasselmyer - 07/21/14

In June, the Senate introduced the Social Security Overpayments Fairness Act of 2014, a bill that would reinstate a 10-year limit on the period during which the Social Security Administration could recover improper payments to beneficiaries. The high frequency of improper payments on the federal level is a major issue for both government agencies and taxpayers, and it carries billion-dollar consequences.

While receiving a check without earning it doesn't seem likely, according to a recent report published by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the chances of this happening to you are better than winning the lottery. Their study found that the government spent over $105 billion in improper payments last year, arising from outright fraud, clerical errors, or awards without the proper paperwork and verification.

The GAO conducts the study each year to determine which federal agencies are making wasteful payments and how to minimize the frequency of these payouts. Although improper payments have slowly decreased since 2010 (when they peaked at $121 billion), it is estimated that over the course of five years, about half a trillion dollars will be paid to ineligible individuals. That's $500 billion that could be circulating in the economy and fostering economic growth.

By providing funds or services to individuals without the proper medical documentation, entitlement programs are the largest contributors to wrongful payments. Here are some examples:

  • Medicare, alone, wrongly expended $50 billion dollars -- that's almost 18 billion Starbucks tall coffees.
  • Medicaid spent $14.4 billion in improper payments (enough for 1.6 billion monthly Netflix subscriptions).
  • Social Security wasted $2.4 billion, the equivalent of about 1 billion loaves of bread.

Whether it's coffee or bread, there are countless ways in which this money could be spent in the private sector, but the fact of the matter is improper payments represent a huge deadweight loss in the economy.

Fortunately, there are a number of options to reduce the incidence of improper payments. The first step to reducing these payouts relies on identifying the root cause of the issue, whether it's simply an accounting error or a high frequency of fraud. Secondly, government agencies can implement reforms such as data sharing and training programs to improve up-front validation of eligibility. Many of these steps will increase spending, however, so it is important that these agencies make the most cost effective reforms. Lastly, it's important for the agencies to identify instances of improper payments so that they can then quickly recover the lost funds. If agencies like the Social Security Administration can establish a more efficient and cost effective way to recover improper payments in a timely manner, then there will be no need to pursue indirect beneficiaries for funds allocated more than a decade before. Similarly, a transparent Social Security program with more uniform payments would make it significantly easier for the administration to determine when it has wrongly apportioned funds.

There is no doubt that tax and healthcare fraud pose a serious threat to taxpayers and the economy. With the total estimated costs of healthcare fraud exceeding $270 billion, more than $375 billion dollars in taxpayer funds are being wasted each year -- that's 7.5 percent of all federal tax revenues. Not only does this harm the taxpayer and hinder the recovery of the economy, it also sets tax levels at a higher rate than necessary. By cleaning up our system, we can lower the need for federal revenue and, in turn, leave a few extra dollars in each American's pocket.

Special thanks to NTUF Research Associate Steve Adams for authoring this post.

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