A group of U.S. business executives called for Congress to cut the corporate tax rate as low as possible and end the current global approach in which companies’ profits are taxed no matter where they’re earned.
“We see this as a big enabler,” said Dennis Muilenburg, chief executive officer of Boeing Co. “It will unleash our ability to grow jobs.”
Congressional Republicans and officials in President Donald Trump’s administration have said they’ll release at least some details of a framework for overhauling U.S. taxes next week. Chief among their to-do list is cutting the corporate tax rate, which at 35 percent is the highest in the developed world. Even so, many companies pay far lower effective tax rates because they use special exemptions, credits and other breaks that have been written into the tax code over the years.
During a forum in Washington on Wednesday, members of the Business Roundtable, a lobbying group made up of CEOs from dozens off U.S. companies, suggested they’d be ready to give up some of those tax advantages in exchange for a lower overall tax rate. Participants included Muilenburg, AT&T Inc. CEO Randall Stephenson, Lockheed Martin Corp. CEO Marillyn Hewson and United Parcel Service CEO David Abney.
“Every one of these CEOs” has said he or she is willing to put such tax preferences “on the table” in exchange for a lower rate, said Mark Weinberger, CEO of accounting firm EY, who also took part. He said that distinguishes this push for a tax overhaul from past attempts.
Trump has proposed slashing the rate to 15 percent—a move that’s estimated to cost as much as $2 trillion in revenue over 10 years. Some administration officials have indicated that Trump’s proposal may be subject to compromise. Leading lawmakers, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, have spoken of a rate in the mid to low 20s.
Tax legislation has yet to be written. White House officials and congressional leaders have said they plan to release a framework for a bill next week—though it’s unclear how specific that document will be.
During Wednesday’s forum, AT&T’s Stephenson noted that Republicans, who now control the White House and both chambers of Congress, campaigned on overhauling taxes and the U.S. health care system.
“It may be political survival for them,” Stephenson said. “I actually take comfort in that.”
The CEOs at Wednesday’s forum also called on U.S. policy makers to move to a “territorial approach” for corporate taxation—which would exempt most offshore corporate income from U.S. taxes—as other developed nations have done.
The current global approach to taxation—in which companies typically owe U.S. tax on their offshore earnings after credits for the foreign taxes they’ve paid—creates a competitive disadvantage for American firms, the CEOs said.
Current law allows companies to defer taxes on those foreign earnings unless or until they return them to the U.S. The deferral provision has led U.S. companies to stockpile an estimated $2.6 trillion in earnings offshore.
Trump and congressional leaders have proposed moving to a territorial system. In doing so, however, they’ll have to take steps to prevent “earnings shifting,” said EY’s Weinberger. In other words, any tax-code overhaul that makes offshore profit no longer subject to U.S. tax will have to be accompanied by provisions that prevent companies from shifting their profits to foreign countries with even lower tax rates.
“I think we recognize something will be in the final legislation on that,” he said.
That’s just one of several complications that remain to be worked out. Others include determining how a revised tax code would treat pass-through entities—businesses that don’t pay taxes themselves, but pass their earnings through to their owners, who then pay tax at their individual tax rates. (The top individual rate is 39.6 percent.)
Lawmakers want to give pass-through businesses a rate cut to keep them competitive with corporations—but a problem arises from the fact that many pass-throughs—which can range from mom-and-pop grocers to hugely profitable hedge funds—pay their owners wages in addition to business income.
“What you’ve got to do is separate their wages from their business income,” Weinberger said. And that’s where the discussion gets difficult, he said.
Given the complexity, many of the CEOs at Wednesday’s forum said that while they’re hoping and lobbying for a tax overhaul, they’re not counting on it happening as they do their financial planning. “It’s just too much uncertainty to bake it in,” said UPS’s Abney, in response to a question.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” AT&T’s Stephenson said.