A new bill introduced this week by Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), the Tax Fairness and Transparency Act, would rip out the offshore corporate tax avoidance system by its roots. This legislation combines into a single, comprehensive bill elements of three pieces of legislation that Rep. Pocan has proposed in previous years.
While many drivers of offshore corporate tax avoidance exist, the single biggest one is companies’ ability to defer paying taxes on their offshore earnings. According to official estimates, this provision of the tax code, known as deferral, will cost the U.S. Treasury about $1.3 trillion over the next 10 years.
Rep. Pocan’s bill would end deferral, which means companies would be required to pay the full U.S. corporate tax rate each year on their offshore earnings (less foreign taxes already paid), rather than indefinitely putting off paying these taxes. This provision would remove the incentive for companies to hold their earnings in tax havens because they would owe the same amount in taxes regardless of where they report their profits.
Ending deferral is a proposal that has garnered substantial bipartisan support over the years. For example, in the presidential primaries, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and then Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump both put out tax reform plans calling for an end to deferral. In addition, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and former Sen. Dan Coats (R-IN) proposed tax reform legislation that would have ended deferral as well.
Rep. Pocan’s bill also takes aim at a tax avoidance practice known as earnings stripping, wherein companies shift profits by making loans from their subsidiaries in low-tax jurisdictions to their subsidiaries in higher-tax jurisdictions. The bill would crack down on this behavior by limiting the amount of interest that companies can deduct if their U.S. subsidiaries are taking on a disproportionate share of the company’s worldwide debt. Curbing earnings stripping would reinforce the bill’s move to end deferral by limiting the incentive of companies to avoid U.S. taxes by engaging in a corporate inversion and then using earnings stripping to shift U.S. income out of the country tax-free.
A final key provision in Rep. Pocan’s proposed legislation is that it would require all publicly traded companies to disclose key financial data on a country-by-country basis. The financial data would have to be publicly disclosed and would include companies’ income, income taxes paid, revenue, number of employees and capital in each of the countries in which they operate. This provision would add critically needed transparency to our tax system by allowing the public, media and even tax officials to ascertain whether major corporations are paying their fair share in taxes. It would also make the United States a leader, rather than a laggard, in the international effort to end corporate tax avoidance.
Offshore corporate tax avoidance is neither inevitable nor acceptable. Lawmakers could immediately put an end to these offshore tax shenanigans once and for all by passing Rep. Pocan’s Tax Fairness and Transparency Act.