The Center's work on 'Federal Tax' Issues

The Center analyzes major tax proposals, examining their likely effects on the economy and on the government’s ability to address critical national needs, especially over the long term. We place particular emphasis on the effects of tax proposals on households at different income levels. In addition, we analyze trends in the level of federal revenues, income distribution, and tax burdens.


Debating Corporate “Inversions”

September 19, 2014 at 3:32 pm

At a Heritage Foundation panel discussion this week, CBPP Senior Tax Policy Analyst Chye-Ching Huang debunked myths surrounding the recent wave of corporate “inversions,” in which U.S.-based firms move their headquarters overseas for tax purposes, and explained why policymakers should take strong action against them, explaining:

People think that there is a simple story that is driving inversions . . . that there are companies that are changing their tax headquarters to escape the highest statutory rate in the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development].  But that simple story is not what is happening. . . . The problem is really about U.S. multinationals and other multinationals gaming the tax system in the U.S. and all throughout the OECD so that they can claim that all of their profits are in tax havens.

Other panelists included CNBC Senior Economics Contributor Larry Kudlow, Heritage Chief Economist Stephen Moore, and Walter J. Gavin, Retired Vice Chairman of Emerson Electric.

As we’ve explained (see here and here for examples), the effective tax rate that U.S. multinationals face on their worldwide income is well below the 35 percent top U.S. statutory rate.  A big reason why is that multinationals report vast amounts of their income as coming from tax havens where they pay little or no tax.  Adopting a foreign headquarters could make it easier for multinationals to claim that their profits are made offshore and to use tax havens to avoid taxes anywhere.

House Republicans’ Wrong-Headed Approach to Tax Extenders

September 17, 2014 at 1:00 pm

House Republicans are putting before the House this week a campaign-oriented bill of wide-ranging measures that have previously passed the House, including repealing portions of the Affordable Care Act and scaling back Dodd-Frank regulations.  The bill, which won’t advance beyond the House due to obvious Senate and White House opposition, also includes business tax provisions that lawmakers will likely consider again during Congress’ post-election lame duck session this fall.  For that reason alone, the legislation warrants some attention.

The House bill would make permanent certain “tax extenders” — so named because Congress routinely extends them for a year or two at a time — as well as bonus depreciation, which lets businesses take larger upfront tax deductions for certain purchases, such as machinery and equipment, and that historically has been a temporary measure to help revive a weak economy.  Congress should reject the House approach to these provisions because it is not fiscally responsible, is poorly designed from an economic standpoint, and is antithetical to tax reform.  Moreover, it reflects seriously misplaced priorities, putting the permanent extension of these business provisions ahead of more pressing provisions for hard-working families.

  • Its $500 billion price tag is fiscally irresponsible.  Policymakers have enacted significant deficit-reduction measures since 2010, with the vast majority coming from spending cuts.  The one revenue contribution stems from the 2012 “fiscal cliff” bill — i.e., the American Taxpayer Relief Act — that raised $770 billion in revenue from high-income taxpayers (from 2015 to 2024).  The tax extenders and bonus depreciation provisions in the House bill would reduce revenue by $500 billion over the decade, effectively giving back two-thirds of the revenue contribution to deficit reduction (see chart).  (The total cost of the House bill is about $575 billion, because of other revenue-losing provisions.)

  • It’s poorly designed from an economic standpoint because it makes bonus depreciation permanent.  Making bonus depreciation permanent accounts for more than half of the $500 billion cost of the business tax provisions.  But bonus depreciation was specifically designed not to be permanent because its temporary nature is what drives its (albeit limited) effectiveness during recessions.  Its modest economic boost comes entirely from inducing firms to accelerate some of their purchases into the period when the tax break is in effect and the economy is weak.  Making it permanent would negate this modest incentive effect.  That’s why the Bush Administration and Congress allowed it to expire after the 2001 recession ended and why this Congress should let it expire now.
  • It moves away from tax reform.  The fundamental nature of tax reform is to “broaden the base” by scaling back tax subsidies and to use the freed-up funds to lower tax rates, reduce budget deficits, or both.  For example, House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) earlier this year advanced a comprehensive plan that eliminated tax subsidies for certain business investments, including the repeal of bonus depreciation.  These changes were central to his base-broadening provisions.  But the package that House Republicans are now bringing before the House goes in the opposite direction.  Its provision to make bonus depreciation permanent narrows the tax base and, thereby, moves away from tax reform.

If, during the lame duck session, policymakers consider making any tax extenders permanent, they should focus first on making permanent important provisions of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit (CTC) that are due to expire at the end of 2017.  Failure to make the EITC and CTC provisions permanent would have a significant impact on low- and moderate-income families, pushing 17 million people (including 8 million children) into — or deeper into — poverty.

The EITC’s Far-Reaching Benefits

September 4, 2014 at 12:17 pm

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) “may ultimately be judged one of the most successful labor market innovations in U.S. history,” says the University of California’s Hilary Hoynes in a new article, explaining that the EITC not only encourages work and reduces poverty but produces gains that extend into the next generation:

The effects of EITC extend well beyond simple income support and poverty reduction.  By increasing the income of poor families, it generates additional spending and hence “downstream” economic effects.  It leads to various improvements in the mental and physical health of mothers.  It brings about a reduction in low birth weight among infants. And it improves the performance of children on cognitive tests.  This burgeoning body of work suggests, then, that income support programs have benefits that extend well beyond an increase in cash flow for families in poverty.

We’ve highlighted findings by Hoynes, a leading researcher, and others on the benefits of the EITC and related income support, including a study suggesting that more adequate income during early childhood can lead to greater work effort later in life (see chart).

Policymakers can build on this proven success by expanding the tiny EITC for childless workers, as both President Obama and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan favor, and by making permanent key EITC and Child Tax Credit improvements set to expire in 2018.

Ryan Backs Reform to Mortgage Interest Deduction — But Bigger Changes Needed

August 27, 2014 at 1:34 pm

Endorsing House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp’s proposal to limit the mortgage interest deduction recently, Budget Chairman Paul Ryan explained that it “ought to be a middle class tax break, not something for higher-income earners.”  He’s right to criticize the deduction for favoring those at the top but, while Camp’s proposal moves in the right direction, policymakers should go further.

The deduction, which Camp would limit to mortgages up to $500,000 (cutting the current $1 million limit in half), is ripe for reform (see graph).  Some 42 percent of its benefits go to households with incomes above $200,000, the Joint Tax Committee estimates, while only 8 percent go to households with incomes below $75,000.  Close to half of homeowners with mortgages don’t benefit at all because they either don’t owe federal income taxes (though they typically pay substantial payroll taxes and/or state and local taxes) or don’t itemize deductions.

Federal housing spending as a whole is poorly matched to need, and policymakers could do more to rebalance it if they not only capped the deduction for the largest mortgages but also converted the deduction to a credit worth a fixed percentage of a household’s mortgage interest.

Several bipartisan plans — including those from President George W. Bush’s tax reform panel and the chairs of President Obama’s fiscal commission, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson — have backed this approach, which would trim benefits for higher-income households while expanding them for many middle- and lower-income households.

Policymakers should redirect part of the savings from reforming the mortgage interest deduction (after deficit-reduction goals are met) to help low-income renters, for example by creating a renters’ tax credit.  Low-income renters — including elderly people, people with disabilities, and working-poor families with children — are more likely than other groups to struggle to keep a roof over their heads, but federal housing policy provides far more help to homeowners and higher-income households.

IRS Commissioner Confirms House-Passed Cuts to IRS Budget Could Be “Catastrophic”

August 25, 2014 at 3:48 pm

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said, according to Tax Notes, that the effects of House-passed IRS budget cuts would be “very serious if not catastrophic” to the agency’s ability to collect revenue and provide taxpayer services, adding: “I no longer want people to think that if we get less money it doesn’t make any difference.  It makes a big difference on taxpayers, on tax preparers, on tax compliance, on tax enforcement.”

As we have written, the House bill would cut IRS funding by $1.5 billion in 2015, including a $1.2 billion reduction in the agency’s enforcement budget, relative to 2014 funding.  The enforcement budget is crucial to the IRS’ ability to collect revenue and pursue tax cheats.  As Commissioner Koskinen affirms, reducing the IRS enforcement budget actually increases the deficit because it prevents the agency from thwarting tax fraud, evasion, and other illegal behavior, thus reducing federal revenue:

Congress is starving our revenue-generating operation. If voluntary compliance with the tax code drops by 1 percent, it costs the U.S. government $30 billion per year.  The IRS annual budget is only $11 billion per year.

And the House cuts would come on top of years of IRS budget cuts that have already weakened enforcement and harmed taxpayer services.  Funding for the IRS fell by 14 percent (after accounting for inflation) between 2010 and 2014 (see chart).  These cuts forced the agency to reduce its workforce by over 10,000 employees and have led directly to a significant decline in the quality of taxpayer services.

For example, millions of taxpayers depend on IRS assistance over the telephone, yet in 2013, a typical caller to the IRS waited on hold for about 18 minutes for an IRS representative, and about 40 percent of calls were never answered.  This is a sharp decline from 2010, when the IRS answered three-quarters of calls and had an average wait time of just under 11 minutes.

Commissioner Koskinen was frank about the impact of continued cuts:

You cannot continue to reduce our resources and ask us to do more things.  The blind belief in Congress that they can continue to cut funding and we will just become more efficient is not the case.  We are becoming more efficient but there is a limit.  Eventually the effects will show up.  We are no longer going to pretend that cutting funding makes no difference.

Policymakers must give the IRS the resources it needs to fulfill its tax-collecting mission and provide the services taxpayers depend on.  The first step is for the Senate and the President to reject the reckless House cuts.