The conversation on corporate tax expenditures is complicated by an official tax baseline that relies on a misleading definition of spending through the tax code.
The US government uses the term tax expenditure to describe both privileges granted to politically favored special interests and patches to the tax system that address economic inefficiencies created by the income tax code. This use of the term confuses two very different phenomena and muddies policy discussions about tax reform.
A new study from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University examines the current accounting of tax expenditures, presents case studies of some corporate tax expenditures, and proposes reforms to reduce favoritism in the tax code. The study investigates the difference between tax expenditures that privilege a particular group at the expense of others and tax provisions that, if properly accounted for, would not be counted as tax expenditures at all.
A corporate tax expenditure is defined as a provision in the tax code that allows a firm or group of firms to not pay a tax which would otherwise be collected.
- The modern US tax system is built on the income tax. This system double-taxes investment and savings, distorting market decisions and slowing economic growth.
- To correct these distortions in the income tax, some special tax provisions were created to mitigate biases against savings and investment and offset other distortions.
- Current methods employed by Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) and the administration’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for assessing the fiscal impact of tax expenditures use the income tax as the “baseline” from which to make their count.
- Under the current accounting methods, broadly available tax expenditures that correct for economic bias are economically indistinguishable from government-provided tax subsidies that benefit some businesses and industries at the expense of others.
- A superior tax expenditure baseline would rely on consumption, which would provide a more equal
treatment of economic activity and focus attention on tax provisions that truly provide unfair advantages.
However, even by the standards of a consumption baseline, most corporate tax expenditures are unnecessary privileges that provide unfair advantages to certain industries and firms.
- Sixty-five percent of corporate tax expenditures privilege certain activities or industries while excluding others.
- The proliferation of corporate tax expenditures results in disparate effective tax rates that distort consumption and investment and motivate wasteful rent-seeking.
- The growth of tax expenditures also increases compliance costs by contributing to the lengthening of the tax code, which in the past 30 years has nearly tripled in length, from 26,300 pages in 1984 to the almost 75,000-page behemoth it is today.
So little changes that the DOJ says it’s “an entirely inaccurate description.”
Hans A. von Spakovsky observes: The hysterical fears about the effects of a government “shutdown” being voiced by many in Washington, such as Senator Tom Harkin (D., Iowa), who claims it is “as dangerous as the break-up of the Union before the Civil War,” are almost comical.
The truth from the experience of prior shutdowns, applicable federal laws, Justice Department legal opinions, and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) directives, is that crucial government services and benefits would continue without interruption even if Congress fails to agree on a continuing resolution (CR) or President Obama vetoes it. That includes all services essential for national security and public safety — such as the military and law enforcement — as well as mandatory government payments such as Social Security and veterans’ benefits.
In fact, as the Justice Department said in a legal opinion in 1995, “the federal government will not be truly ‘shut down’ . . . because Congress has itself provided that some activities of Government should continue.” Any claim that not passing a CR would result in a “shutting down” of the government “is an entirely inaccurate description,” according to the Justice Department. Read the rest of this entry »