Tax extenders: The biggest budget buster you’ve never heard of

It’s no secret that members of Congress skillfully obfuscate the facts when they’re inconvenient. In the case of little-known “tax extenders” legislation, lawmakers are leaving out a few key details that would stoke outrage if more Americans knew about them.  

For starters, tax extenders legislation is a package of so-called temporary tax breaks that primarily benefit corporations. Congress is able to hide the true cost of these tax breaks by renewing them every two years. But the truth is, if allowed to continue indefinitely, these corporate tax breaks will balloon the deficit by $700 billion over the next decade.

The hypocrisy in this is startling. For the last couple years, Congress has bickered over how much to cut spending to avert an alleged budget crisis. Earlier this year, in fact, lawmakers refused to help the long-term unemployed unless the costs were offset somewhere else in the budget. Apparently this principle doesn’t apply to corporations as Congress is poised to enact tax extenders without regard to the deficit.

Now is the time for Congress to end the hypocrisy. If we cannot help the long-term unemployed and still have to live with the automatic spending cuts (sequestration) that were said to be necessary to control the budget deficit, then we also cannot afford deficit-financed corporate tax breaks.

The tax extenders do not provide any economic benefits that justify the increase in the deficit. For example, the most expensive provision among the tax extenders, clocking in at $281 billion over a decade according to the Congressional Budget Office, is bonus depreciation. This break allows businesses to write off equipment investment costs much faster than they can under normal tax rules. A similar provision in the package is a special depreciation break for smaller businesses, which costs $65 billion over a decade.

The non-partisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) publishes a lot of detailed policy analyses, and rarely does it tell Congress that its ideas are foolish, but on this issue CRS has said exactly that, concluding in a recent report that “accelerated depreciation in general is a relatively ineffective tool for stimulating the economy.”

This is no surprise because any business person will tell you that they decide to buy new equipment to expand operations only if there are customers who want to buy the products or services they are providing. Given this, Congress should allow at least bonus depreciation to expire.   

The rest of the tax breaks are not much better. The second most expensive provision, with a 10-year cost of $66 billion, is the research tax credit, which is supposed to encourage businesses to perform research that benefits society. The credit sometimes subsidizes activities that most Americans would never want to finance, such as redesigning packaging for food. Some smaller businesses go years without giving any thought to claiming the research credit until an accounting firm tells them that some activity they carried out in the past supposedly qualifies for the credit, which they then claim retroactively. Obviously this does not increase the amount of research conducted.

Another expensive provision is called the active finance exception, but is better remembered as the “G.E. Loophole,” because the director of General Electric’s tax department infamously dropped to his knees as he begged a powerful congressional committee for an extension of this break. The provision allows an exception to general rule that American-owned offshore subsidiaries must be taxed right away on certain profits that are easy to shift from one country to another to avoid taxes.

These provisions, which few Americans would support if they knew about them, account for the vast majority of the costs of the tax extenders.

Of course, lawmakers usually don’t focus on the corporate tax breaks when describing the tax extenders. Instead, they talk instead about the handful of provisions in the package that help middle-income families. But these provisions are only a tiny part of the whole package.

Tax breaks for corporations that will increase the deficit is a fact worth knowing. Lawmakers should reject the tax extenders unless dramatic changes are made to them.

Wamhoff is the legislative director at Citizens for Tax Justice.

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