GOP eyes election-year tax deal

Greg Nash

Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanClinton, Trump bring infrastructure hopes to White House Shutdown risk grows over Flint Senate poised to override Obama veto MORE (R-Wis.) and Sen. Charles SchumerCharles SchumerOvernight Tech: Tech pushes for debate spotlight | Disney may bid for Twitter | Dem seeks Yahoo probe Saudis hire lobbyists amid 9/11 fight Consumer bureau remains partisan target after Wells Fargo settlement MORE (D-N.Y.) are eyeing a new round of election-year talks aimed at winning a deal on international corporate tax reform.

The plunging stock market is being cited as a new reason to move quickly on reform as a way to boost U.S. companies and jobs in a suddenly shaky global economy.

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Any deal would allow companies to bring profits kept abroad into the United States at a reduced tax rate and set a new worldwide rate on future international earnings.

“There is growing momentum for addressing our international tax code, making it far more competitive, encouraging companies to reinvest their profits back in the United States and growing our economy by keeping companies from relocating their intellectual property overseas,” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin BradyKevin BradyUS wins aerospace subsidies trade case over the EU Republican Study Committee elders back Harris for chairman Congress must pass Sunset the Tax Code bill before election MORE (R-Texas) said in an interview.

Brady plans to hold a meeting with other members of the Ways and Means panel at the Library of Congress on Monday to discuss strategy. He wants to hold a vote this year on a package, and Ryan has given him the go-ahead to work on a deal.

“He's firmly behind our efforts to take solid steps this year both on international tax [reform] and lay the groundwork for growth reform in 2017,” Brady said of Ryan's support.

The Dow Jones industrial average plummeted 565 points Wednesday before recovering some and finishing the day down 249 points.

Brady said Wednesday that shrinking corporate earnings and stagnating pay underscore the urgent need to overhaul parts of the tax code.

“This is the slowest economic recovery in a half a century,” he said. “We shouldn’t miss the opportunity to lower the tax gates to allow American profits to flow back to the United States to be invested in jobs, in research and in buildings,” he said.

Numerous hurdles to a deal remain, such as fights over what to do with the revenue and election-year distractions, as well as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has been decidedly cool to the possibility of a new effort at tax reform.

Senate Republicans are not eager to take votes on tax policy that could be politically risky during an election year when they must defend 24 seats.

Senior GOP senators are skeptical about passing any reforms in 2016.

“It’s something that needs to be done. We should want to try to bring that money back but it’s got to be done under certain circumstances,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). “The real problem is what do you do with the money when it comes back.”

House Republicans, led by Ryan, are considerably more optimistic.

“I think Ryan and Brady would love to have the business community excited about a modernized tax system,” said James Gould, a tax expert and principal at Ogilvy Government Relations.

George Callas, Ryan’s senior tax counsel, earlier this month highlighted overseas corporate tax reform as a possible area of compromise, pointing to the growing problem of companies moving their addresses out of the U.S. in search of lower taxes — a process known as inversion.

“More household names are inverting, and it's creating a lot of political pressure to actually do something there, so you could see something like that possibly happening,” Callas said on a webcast sponsored by PricewaterhouseCoopers and reported on by Tax Analysts, a tax news service.

He added, “there’s a lot of angst” about corporations restructuring under foreign ownership “especially in industries like biopharma, where companies get gobbled up even when they're not inversions.” 

Ryan and Schumer worked jointly last year on a package but did not agree on how much of the revenue from reform should be targeted toward new infrastructure funding.

Schumer wanted more than Ryan did, and the differences kept them from reaching a final deal.

Negotiators ultimately found other ways to pay for five of the six years covered by the highway bill approved late last year.

On the presidential campaign trail, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders has made bashing Wall Street a central theme of his campaign. Gould predicts that will cause Democratic senators to demand a steep price in exchange for letting companies transfer an estimated $2 trillion in corporate profits stateside.

“The Democrats, my guess is, would demand a high price in an election year — with Bernie Sanders — to provide a tax exemption for corporations on overseas earnings. The price would be very high,” he said.

It’s unclear whether Schumer and Republicans could agree on what to do with revenue from a tax package.

Ryan would prefer the revenue from tax reform go toward deficit reduction but Democrats say that’s a nonstarter. They argue that infrastructure still has pressing needs for more funding. 

“Deficit reduction would not fly with the Democratic side, and the new revenues would have to be substantial. Last year’s transportation bill was good in that had a small spending increase and was long term but it still wasn’t at the level that Democrats would like to see. There’s an appetite for revenue that goes to infrastructure spending,” said a senior Democratic aide.

Brady said Wednesday the money should not go toward more government spending.

“This effort should be about growing the economy and not generating more spending for the government,” he said.  

Another major hurdle is McConnell, who wants to tackle international tax reform as part of a broader effort to rewrite the tax code that would also address individual rates.

“The biggest obstacle is potentially McConnell because he has been publicly and privately very down on the idea [or international corporate tax reform.] He’s setting the year up to play small ball and do no harm to incumbents,” the Democratic aide said.

At a press conference in mid December, McConnell downplayed the prospect of an international corporate tax reform deal in 2016.

A wild card could be President Obama.

Last year he proposed an international tax reform plan to pay for a $478 billion transportation bill, including a one-time 14 percent tax on profit returned to the U.S. and a 19 percent tax on future international earnings.

Some Republicans think Obama’s desire to burnish his legacy before leaving office will make him more amenable to compromise. The White House torpedoed an effort by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to lock in several expiring tax provisions at the end of 2014 but changed its tune last year.

Obama’s team helped negotiate a $680 billion deal in the fall that indefinitely extended many popular tax breaks — including the research and development tax credit, a major win for businesses — and expansions of tax breaks that were the core of the president's 2009 economic stimulus package.

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, says it makes sense for Republicans to move forward with a reform package in case Obama decides to take a stab at another year-end tax deal.

“There’s no risk at all in going into negotiation with the president,” the anti-tax activist said. “One, there’s always the possibility the president wants some sort of legacy.”

He added that Obama has promised wealthy liberals in Silicon Valley for years he would try to address corporate tax rates but hasn’t delivered.

“For eight years he’s been promising he’d do something about it,” Norquist said. “He might wake up one morning and he’s got 10 people who he called about his library and they said, ‘We’re not going to build your library. You promised you were going to finish [corporate tax reform.] You hate Silicon Valley.’"