Last year, Senator Carl Levin's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations reviewed various studies on the fiscal impact of offshore tax evasion and concluded that the resulting loss of revenue annually is in the neighborhood of $100 billion. (Yes, that's $100 billion with a "b" -- every year.)

Senator Levin then introduced the Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act in the Senate, and Rep. Lloyd Doggett introduced the House version. This legislation makes several changes that would make it easier for the IRS to identify and prosecute Americans who illegally stash their income in countries commonly called tax havens, which essentially have no income taxes (or extremely low income taxes) and laws that prevent banks from revealing anything about their clients to the U.S. tax enforcement authorities. It also includes some steps that would prevent corporations from engaging in the most egregious offshore tax avoidance schemes using some of these same tax havens for their low or non-existent income taxes.

Many of us were disappointed when the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) made it's official estimate that the bill would raise less than $30 billion over an entire decade (since the ten-year cost of offshore tax evasion to law-abiding America is probably over a trillion dollars.)

But the low revenue "score" is not surprising. JCT has historically erred on the side of making very low revenue estimates for measures that enhance tax enforcement, since it's hard to predict how effective new enforcement measures will be. And for that matter, it's hard to know exactly how many people are engaging in offshore tax evasion and how much they're cheating. It could cost us less than $100 billion, it could cost more, but we don't know for sure. That's the nature of tax evasion -- the money is hidden from the government, so no one knows for sure how big the problem is.

But even the little bit of revenue that the Levin-Doggett bill would officially raise over a decade seems to be too much for some members of both parties in Congress. Yesterday, the chairmen of the two tax-writing committees, Rep. Charles Rangel and Senator Max Baucus, introduced their own bill to crack down on tax havens (officially called the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act), which will only raise $8.5 billion over ten years according to JCT.

The Baucus-Rangel bill does include important measures to require more reporting of foreign bank accounts and foreign assets and closing loopholes, and most of these provisions are in the Levin-Doggett bill. But Baucus and Rangel unfortunately left out some key provisions that are in the Levin-Doggett bill, which accounts for a large part of the difference in the revenue "scores" for the two bills.

Presumptions Against Americans Who Use Tax Havens

For example, the Levin-Doggett bill includes a list of countries that meet its definition of an "offshore secrecy jurisdiction," which is generally what we would call a tax haven. The Treasury would be authorized to remove countries from or add countries to the list as circumstances change. In tax evasion cases concerning accounts or assets in one of the listed countries, the IRS would be allowed three presumptions. (This means there would be three things that the IRS would not have to prove in court when prosecuting these cases, so the burden of proof would shift to the defendant.)

The first presumption would be that a U.S. taxpayer who “formed, transferred assets to, was a beneficiary of, or received money or property” from an offshore entity is in control of that entity. For example, this rule would prevent U.S. taxpayers from claiming that the trustee (usually a foreign person or entity) of their offshore trust is not permitted by the trust document to send money back to the U.S. to pay creditors (including the IRS).

The second presumption is that funds or other property received from offshore are taxable income, and funds or other property transferred offshore have not yet been taxed. The taxpayer will have to prove that the funds aren’t taxable income, or else pay the tax. The third presumption is that a financial account in a foreign country controlled by a U.S. taxpayer has a large enough balance ($10,000) that it must be reported to the IRS.

Special Enforcement Measures

Another set of provisions that are in the Levin-Doggett bill but not in the Baucus-Rangel bill would add to existing Treasury authority to impose special requirements on U.S. financial institutions. Under the Patriot Act, Treasury can impose a range of requirements on U.S. financial institutions dealing with certain entities -- from requiring greater information reporting to prohibiting opening accounts. The Patriot Act’s provisions are aimed at combating money laundering. The Levin-Doggett bill would extend that authority to allow Treasury to use those tools against foreign jurisdictions or financial institutions that are “impeding U.S. tax enforcement.” It would also add an additional tool to the Treasury’s arsenal: it would allow Treasury to prohibit U.S. financial institutions from accepting credit card transactions involving a designated foreign jurisdiction or financial institution.

Treatment of Foreign Corporations Managed and Controlled in the U.S. as U.S. Corporations

Yet another provision that is in the Levin-Doggett bill but not the Baucus-Rangel bill would treat foreign corporations as U.S. domestic corporations for tax purposes if 1) the corporation is publicly traded or has aggregate gross assets of $50 million or more, AND 2) its management and control occurs primarily in the U.S.

This provision of the bill deals with a certain type of tax avoidance rather than tax evasion, meaning a practice that may be technically legal even though it's an abuse of the tax system. The provision is particularly aimed at hedge funds and investment management businesses that are structured as foreign entities, although their key decision-makers live and work in the U.S. As Sen. Levin put it in his statement, “It is unacceptable that such companies utilize U.S. offices, personnel, laws, and markets to make their money, but then stiff Uncle Sam and offload their tax burden onto competitors who play by the rules.”

Less Robust Crackdown on Tax Havens Means Less Revenue

These provisions, which are some of the most important in the Levin-Doggett bill but which are not in the Baucus-Rangel bill, would raise $9 billion over ten years according to JCT. There may be many things that make Congressional leaders uncomfortable with these provisions, but surely one major factor is that it would require them to take on financial institutions that have subsidiaries in tax havens.

Economic Substance

There are other provisions included in the Levin-Doggett bill, but not the Baucus-Rangel bill, such as a provision codifying the “economic substance doctrine” in the Internal Revenue Code. The doctrine has been developed over the years by courts to disallow losses or deductions that have no economic substance apart from their tax benefits. Unfortunately, different courts have developed different interpretations of the rule and courts do not apply the doctrine uniformly. The bill would put the economic substance doctrine into the tax law, thereby disallowing losses, deductions, or credits arising from “tax avoidance transactions,” for example, where the present value of the tax savings far exceeds the present value of the pre-tax profits.

This particular provision was probably left out of Baucus and Rangel's bill simply because they want to use this as a revenue-raiser for other purposes, since it has already been attached to several bills.

The Path Ahead

The introduction of Baucus and Rangel's bill, the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, is certainly a positive development because it means Congress might finally be ready to do something about those who cheat on their taxes at the expense of the rest of us. But Congress tends to take on a controversial issue only once every decade (or longer) so if the legislation that is finally enacted is too weak to make a difference, we're stuck with it for a while. That's why the Baucus-Rangel bill will need to be amended in committee or on the floor of the House and Senate to incorporate some of the best elements of the Levin-Doggett bill.

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