A commonsense bill introduced today would prevent American corporations from pretending to be "foreign" companies to avoid taxes even while they maintain most of their ownership, operations and management in the United States.

Sponsored by Sen. Carl Levin and Rep. Sander Levin, the Stop Corporate Inversions Act requires the entity resulting from a U.S.-foreign merger to be treated as a U.S. corporation for tax purposes if it is majority owned by shareholders of the acquiring American company or if it is managed in the U.S. and has substantial business here.

These are common sense rules and many people might be surprised to learn that they are not already part of our tax laws. In fact, the law on the books now (a law enacted in 2004) recognizes the inversion unless the merged company is more than 80 percent owned by the shareholders of the acquiring American corporation and does not have substantial business in the country where it is incorporated.

The current law therefore does prevent corporations from simply signing some papers and declaring itself to be reincorporated in, say, Bermuda. But it doesn’t address the situations in which an American corporation tries to add a dollop of legitimacy to the deal by obtaining a foreign company that is doing actual business in another country.

The management of Pfizer recently attempted to acquire the British drug maker AstraZeneca for this purpose and a group of hedge funds that own stock in the drug store chain Walgreen have been pushing that company to increase its stake in the European company Alliance Boots for the same purpose.

The Stop Corporate Inversions Act is based on a proposal that was included in President Obama’s most recent budget plan, which is projected by the administration and the Joint Committee on Taxation to raise $17 billion over a decade. The only difference between the House and Senate version of the bill is that the House version is permanent while the Senate version is effective for just two years. Apparently the Senate cosponsors include some lawmakers who believe that the issue of inversions can be addressed as part of tax reform at some point over the next two years and a stopgap measure is needed until then.

Either way, Congress needs to act now. House Ways and Means Committee chairman Dave Camp and Senate Finance Committee ranking Republican Orrin Hatch have both suggested that Congress should do nothing at all except as part of a major comprehensive tax reform. Given that the only tax reform plan Camp has been able to produce was a regressive $1.7 trillion tax cut that didn’t even meet his own stated goals of revenue and distributional neutrality, it’s obvious that Congress is a long way off from settling all the issues related to tax reform. In the meantime, how often will we be asked to play along as major American corporations pretend to be “foreign” in order to avoid paying taxes?

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