The Road Show's Over, It's Time to Talk Policy


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What could be more lovable than a bipartisan effort to simplify the tax code? A bipartisan effort to simplify the tax code led by a couple of folksy guys in shirtsleeves who call themselves Max and Dave. No matter that they are two of the most powerful members of Congress, they have managed to craft a successful PR campaign playing on the public’s frustration with political partisanship and endemic dislike of the tax code. 

Max and Dave, of course, are Senator Max Baucus, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, and Representative Dave Camp, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. Their aw-shucks, let’s-get-a-beer-and-fix-the-tax-code routine has received friendly media coverage inside the Beltway and outside too, during their recently wrapped up road show, which took the pair to Minnesota, Philadelphia, Silicon Valley and Memphis.

But as we have said many, many times, if these two are serious about reforming the tax code, they need to get serious about revenues. Indeed, they need to get serious period.  Stop putting the cart before the horse, quit with the campaign strategy and get down to policy.

Most recently, we made our point on the opinion pages of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the day before Max and Dave showed up for a friendly roundtable with executives from FedEx, one of the squeakier (PDF) corporate wheels when it comes to tax reform.  Our op-ed, “Most of Us Want Corporate Loopholes Shut,” asked why the Senator and Congressman would visit with FedEx for advice about tax reform.

“The venue is apt because FedEx’s taxpaying behavior is emblematic of the challenges facing anyone seeking to fix the United States’ corporate tax system; it’s awkward because FedEx is a heavy feeder on tax breaks enthusiastically supported over many years by bipartisan majorities in Congress.”

We then explained some of what we’d learned in reviewing FedEx’s latest financial statements.

“For example, my organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, found that between 2008 and 2010, FedEx paid an effective federal income tax rate of just 0.9 percent on over $4.2 billion in U.S. profits. With two more years of tax filings now publicly available, we know that over the past five years, FedEx paid an average effective federal income tax rate of just 4.2 percent.”

And we took on that worn-out whine about corporations needing a lower corporate tax rate to be competitive.

“FedEx also demonstrates how the U.S. corporate income tax does not appear to make our companies less “competitive,” despite the insistence of legions of CEOs that it does. Between 2008 and 2010, FedEx paid an effective income tax rate of 45 percent in the foreign countries where it does business. That’s about 50 times higher than the 0.9 percent rate they faced in the U.S. In fact, of the Fortune 500 corporations that were consistently profitable and that had significant offshore profits during that same period, we found that two-thirds actually paid higher taxes in the foreign countries where they do business than they paid in the U.S.”

Our op-ed in Tennessee also made reference to FedEx’s vast offshore holdings and how it drives down its taxes using depreciation. You can read the whole thing here. You can also read a small business owner using the Max and Dave visit at FedEx to make a similar point in a Tennessean op-ed.

Our real target, of course, wasn’t FedEx but rather the tax reforming team of Baucus and Camp.  We use individual corporations’ tax payments as case studies – little narratives to show what’s wrong with the corporate tax code.  As these corporations like to say, their tax avoidance practices are generally legal because Congress made them legal, so we like to show Congress exactly how their laws are working when it comes to corporate tax revenues.

Sometimes, though, companies take it personally when we publicize their actual tax payments, (remember our back and forth with GE last year?).  Sure enough, two days after our op-ed ran in Memphis, a FedEx V.P. took to the same opinion page to defend the company, using many of the shell games we’ve come to expect. For example, we had explained that FedEx paid a 4.2 percent effective federal income tax rate on its U.S. profits over five years. FedEx V.P. Michael Fryt retorted with a ten year total tax payments figure in dollars, cited its total bill for state, local and federal taxes over five years, and then wrote that FedEx’s effective tax rate has been between 35.3 and 37.9 percent since 2010 – and was even 85.6 percent in 2009.

Notice how those effective rate figures he cites are all actually higher than the federal statutory rate of 35 percent? There’s a reason for that.  While we focused on the company’s federal corporate income tax as a percentage of its U.S. profits, like we always do, Fryt is trying to divert attention to other taxes and taxes that FedEx has not paid yet, as companies often do.  It’s like CTJ shows the world an apple and these companies jump up and down demanding the world look at their oranges instead.  

We have a full response to those oranges FedEx was pushing last week right here.  Among other things, it’s a case of Fryt including taxes that FedEx paid not just to the U.S. Treasury but to every country and locality everywhere it does business, which is not something that Max Baucus or Dave Camp or any member of Congress has any control over. Members of Congress are debating how to reform federal taxes, and we assume that FedEx is lobbying (and lobbying) Congress to influence the shape of that same federal corporate income tax, not the taxes it pays to states or cities or foreign countries.

What Congress can legislate is the federal corporate tax rate and the loopholes, breaks and other special provisions that are increasingly eroding corporate taxes as a share of revenues.  Senator Baucus has told his colleagues to assume the tax code will be wiped clean of such expenditures, even as he and Camp continue to meet with corporations who unapologetically defend their favorite tax breaks – and demand lower rates on top of that.  Summer is over and with it, Max and Dave’s road trip. When they are ready to get back to work, we are ready to offer constructive ideas for tax reform that generates the revenues we need and delivers the fairness the public wants.

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