Congress' Christmas Present to the American Public: A Longer Tax Expenditure Report


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Earlier this week, the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) released its annual Tax Expenditure Report, a compendium of the many tax giveaways that drain federal revenues. In theory, this report is an essential cheat sheet for policymakers seeking to identify the best ways of closing unwarranted tax loopholes and making our tax system fairer and more sustainable.

In practice, Congress has made little progress in cleaning out the tax code in the four decades since the JCT began publishing this report. But the report remains a valuable yardstick for quantifying the cost of various tax breaks.

Here are a few takeaways from the newest report:

1)      It’s getting longer. This year’s report lists over 200 discrete tax breaks. In 1994, the JCT tabulated only 127 giveaways.

2)      Congress is poised to make it longer still. This year’s edition of the report is notably lightened by the temporary absence of the dozens of tax “extenders” that expired at the end of 2014, many of which will likely be resurrected by Congress before year’s end.

3)      Not all tax expenditures are created equal. Just a handful of the tax breaks listed in the JCT report account for a huge share of the $6.8 trillion in tax expenditures tallied here—and some of these largest giveaways have a truly pernicious effect on tax fairness.  To cite two:

The special lower tax rate on capital gains and dividends puts a $690 billion dent in five-year tax collections—while offering little or no benefit to millions of middle- and lower-income working families who get by on the wages they earn each year. It would be hard to devise a way of blowing $700 billion that offers less to working families.

The ability of multinational corporations to indefinitely defer tax on the income of their foreign subsidiaries will cost $563 billion over the next five years—and, as important, gives companies like Apple and Pfizer an incentive to pretend they’re keeping billions of dollars in cash in offshore tax havens. Ending deferral would shore up corporate tax revenues while largely ending the tax-avoidance games played by large multinationals.

In a more perfect world, Congress would annually ask tough questions about whether these and other upside-down tax subsidies such as the mortgage interest deduction are a sensible way of spending the public’s money. After all, if lawmakers proposed a $75 billion direct spending program for housing subsidies that reserved $30 billion for those earning over $200,000 a year, they’d be laughed out of town. But that’s what Congress does, indirectly, each year by leaving the mortgage interest deduction intact.

The timing of the JCT’s latest report is especially apt because Congress has spent much of the last week devising a plan that would dramatically expand the list (and the cost) of corporate tax expenditures. If lawmakers extend, or even make permanent, the dozens of mostly-business-oriented tax giveaways that expired at the end of 2014, next year’s tax expenditure report will be a lot longer—and the report’s tally of “perfectly legal” tax avoidance schemes will be a lot more expensive. It would be hard to find a clearer litmus test of whether Congressional tax writers take seriously the goal of paring back tax expenditures than the impending choice they face on the extenders. 

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