Business owners know the importance of investing to keep their companies competitive. When essential equipment breaks, they fix it if they can or replace it if they can’t. They don’t respond by cutting their budget for maintenance and investment. Yet that’s what Congress has done.
In the face of failing infrastructure — from bridges to sewer lines — federal spending on infrastructure was slashed 14 percent this year. That’s on top of years of neglected maintenance and modernization, leaving the United States falling farther behind our global competitors.
Congress points to the deficit as an excuse for choosing cutbacks over investment. But the deficit is partly a product of tax dodging by big corporations.
U.S. multinational corporations have gamed the tax system by lobbying for and exploiting accounting loopholes to shift more of their U.S. profits offshore in order to avoid taxes they would otherwise owe. Abuse of offshore tax havens by corporations costs the U.S. Treasury an estimated $90 billion a year — double the $45 billion in infrastructure spending the federal government cut this year.
These loopholes hurt small businesses twice. First, they rob our nation of money for investments on the infrastructure businesses and our customers depend on, from roads and bridges to public transit and schools. Second, they tilt the playing field against American small businesses, who aren’t gaming the tax system, to move their jobs and profits offshore.
America’s large corporations paid an effective tax rate of just 12.6 percent in 2010, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office — a lower rate than most small business owners pay. It wasn’t always this way. In the 1950s, corporate taxes accounted for nearly one-third of federal government revenue; last year, they accounted for less than 10 percent.
It’s not that big businesses can’t afford to pay what they used to. Quite the contrary — corporate profits as a percent of gross domestic product are at all-time highs, while federal corporate tax payments as a percent of GDP are near 50-year lows.
The last thing our government should be doing is rewarding tax dodgers. Shockingly, there are proposals to do just that — in the name of investment in our nation’s infrastructure.
President Obama proposed establishing a small, yet unspecified, fee on the more than $2 trillion of profits held in tax havens by U.S. corporations and using the revenue for infrastructure spending. With this fee paid, U.S. corporations could bring these offshore profits back to the United States without paying the 35 percent rate the tax code calls for.
The last time corporations got this kind of break was through the so-called American Job Creation Act of 2004. The results were terrible. Most of the “repatriated” profits went to paying shareholder dividends, as corporations intensified their efforts to disguise their U.S. profits as foreign profits in anticipation of another tax holiday. Meanwhile, many of them cut thousands of jobs.
Another approach was put forth by Rep. John Delaney, D-Md. His Partnership to Build America Act would grant a tax holiday on up to $300 billion of the $2 trillion of corporate profits held offshore. In exchange for tax amnesty, corporations would agree to purchase low-interest bonds that would capitalize an infrastructure bank — which these corporations would partly control — that would issue loan guarantees on up to $750 billion in infrastructure spending.
Corporations could claim they were supporting their country’s infrastructure while paying an effective tax rate as low as 10 percent on their repatriated profits. Meanwhile, their high-priced accountants could continue moving even more U.S. profits and jobs offshore.
Small business owners know that modernizing America’s infrastructure is essential for our economy. But if we establish the precedent that the only way to pay for our national priorities is by paying ransom to those who already evade their responsibilities, then we will face a grim future. U.S. multinationals will shift more profits, jobs and investments offshore — and shift more of their taxpaying responsibilities onto the rest of us.
The best way to fix our aging infrastructure is by closing the barn door on corporate tax dodging, not making the same mistakes we’ve already made.
Bryan McGannon is the deputy policy director for the American Sustainable Business Council.