Tax Reform Plans -- When it Comes to Competitiveness, There's No Competition | Commentary

It’s a central tenet of Economics 101: the more you tax something, the less of it you get. Whether intentional or inadvertent, the weight of a heavier tax burden on the producers of any good or service reliably reduces the volume of output that can be expected. Other benefits are diminished too, such as the prospects for more jobs, better shareholder returns and affordable prices.

Politicians seeking to reform our Tax Code must keep this fundamental principle foremost in their minds. Poorly designed plans have the capacity to harm the health of vibrant industries, such as oil and gas, that have propped up an otherwise sluggish economy over the last five years.

Fortunately, a tax reform framework crafted by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp. R-Mich., can provide structure for meaningful conversations to come. Of course, the plan would benefit from some judicious modifications, in particular to those provisions that could penalize capital-intensive industries to pave the way for lower rates elsewhere. Still, most of the policies Camp seeks are moving in an encouraging direction.

Far less promising are the White House budget and the tax reform draft circulated by former Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., prior to his departure from Congress. The Obama administration’s scheme places politics over sound economic policy by levying selective taxes on what they perceive as easy political targets, whereas the Baucus plan includes across-the-board cuts to provisions that will press the cost of capital upward for many sectors.

No tax reform blueprint can be perfect, and indeed, this once-in-a-generation process will necessarily be defined by compromise and an exchange of ideas between interests that share competing visions of how the law will function. But regardless of where one falls on the philosophical of political spectrum, the goals of simplicity, fairness, uniformity and enhanced economic competitiveness must be at the heart of any plan.

Rhetoric and semantics can keep these goals out of sight. One example is the tiresome habit of labeling legitimate deductions utilized by businesses in other industries “loopholes” and “subsidies” whenever those provisions are utilized by the oil and gas sector. Tax increases of this kind — which White House budgets have often peddled — create even more distortion and complexity in our already labyrinthine Tax Code. They also make it tougher for American companies to keep pace both at home and as they seek to expand abroad.

Taxing oil and gas producers more heavily does not benefit Americans at the pump, spur employment or improve our long-term budget projections. Indeed, a growing energy industry — rather than punitive tax treatment — can ultimately be a government treasury’s best friend, yielding stable, robust revenues.

The treatment of international taxation under each plan is also of critical importance. For years, the Obama administration has sought to modify rules for “dual capacity” taxpayers (such as oil companies and multinational casinos) designed to prevent an American company from being taxed twice on the same income; once in the country where the income was earned and once here at home. Such modifications would be devastating for our firms operating overseas, effectively subjecting them to a tax burden far more excessive than those weathered by foreign (often state-owned) companies competing to develop the same energy resources.

Chairman Camp’s plan takes a different approach by effectively revising our current and badly outdated regime of “worldwide” taxation, which subjects earnings abroad to the home country’s taxes on top of the foreign host’s taxes. Instead, he would pursue a much more efficient “territorial” arrangement.

The territorial method — if executed correctly — has the promise to remove the threat of double taxation that has long loomed over extractive industries and other multinationals. Under a pure territorial system, the question of how a company is taxed on its activities abroad would be clarified and simplified, shifting away from the present reliance on complex deferral and foreign tax credit structures that have been awkwardly designed to give American companies a fighting chance against foreign rivals.

Through a territorial system, businesses are taxed only on income earned within a nation’s borders. Camp’s present plan exempts 95 percent of foreign earnings in this manner – similar to the level espoused in other nations’ policies.

Properly engineered, this revision would be tremendously beneficial in encouraging companies to bring their foreign income and jobs back to the U.S. In the process, one major competitive disadvantage to doing business globally would be removed. The plan is far from novel: most nations within the OECD employ a territorial system of some kind.

These international reforms, coupled with significant rate reductions, make Camp’s plan a platform worthy of further discussion. Revisions and fine tuning are necessary, but this package does far more to fix the broken Tax Code than the White House’s or Baucus’ proposals possibly could.

Regardless of their preferences in this most political year, everyone should agree that tax reform has to be executed in a manner that helps rather than hurts the American economy. We are not there yet — but we are getting closer.

Pete Sepp is Executive Vice President for the National Taxpayers Union.