We all know you shouldn’t leave a restaurant without paying your bill. Unfortunately, our corporate tax laws don’t adhere to this principle, and allow corporations to exit the United States (at least on paper) without paying their full tax bill. New legislation introduced in the U.S. House last week by Texas Rep. Lloyd Doggett would halt this corporate “dine and ditch” practice by requiring any company that claims foreign residency for tax purposes to immediately pay taxes it owes on offshore income.
Doggett’s aptly named “Corporate EXIT Fairness Act” comes at a time when U.S. companies are increasingly taking advantage of a tax code provision called deferral, which allows companies to defer paying taxes on offshore income until it is repatriated back to the United States. A recent report from Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ) found that companies are now deferring an estimated $695 billion in taxes on $2.4 trillion in accumulated offshore earnings.
While deferral provides companies with a very generous tax benefit, many are not satisfied and have sought to permanently exempt their offshore income from U.S. taxes through inversion, a process in which a U.S. company merges with a smaller foreign company and claims the newly merged company is managed from the overseas address. Because the new combined company is domiciled in a foreign country, current law allows that company to have nearly full access to its untaxed offshore profits without having to pay anything it owed on these profits.
In other words, our current system creates a huge incentive for companies to invert by allowing them to permanently avoid paying taxes on their accumulated offshore earnings. Doggett’s proposal would take away this tax advantage by requiring that companies settle the taxes they owe before they leave.
The idea of imposing an exit tax on companies would bring the corporate tax code closer to the individual tax code. When individuals decide to expatriate , the tax laws already sensibly require them to pay any deferred taxes owed on capital gains that they have deferred paying.
Although not specified in detail, Hillary Clinton has also proposed an exit tax as part of her presidential campaign that mirrors Doggett’s proposal.
One thing that distinguishes Doggett’s latest proposal from an earlier incarnation and a related bill in the Senate is that it would apply the exit tax to all expatriating companies rather than just those that meet the definition of an inversion. This change represents a significant improvement because it would eliminate the tax incentive to expatriate across the board. In addition, this legislation includes language from the Stop Corporate Inversions Act, which would not allow inverted companies to be considered foreign if they are still majority owned by stockholders of the original U.S. company.
The damage from offshore tax avoidance and corporate inversions is growing. Congress can and should put an end to these practices. Enacting the Corporate EXIT Fairness Act would be a good start.