Republicans have consistently promised that their tax plan will be so simple that any person will be able to file their taxes on a postcard, but a new report Monday from 13 law professors and tax experts reveals that’s simply not true.
The latest version of the bill allows for a number of complicated tax planning opportunities, including using corporations as tax shelters and creating pass-through games for wealthy taxpayers with clever accountants. It also incentivizes outsourcing, punishes wage-earners, complicates the process of filing taxes, and almost exclusively benefits the ultra-wealthy.
Despite all of that, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) announced Monday afternoon that she would vote for the bill, making it likelier than ever that the legislation — which will overhaul the American economic system and nearly every aspect of American life — will become law.
“The most serious structural problems with the bill are unavoidable outcomes of Congress’s choice to preference certain taxpayers and activities while disfavoring others — and for no discernible policy rationale,” the report’s authors write.
The only explanation, one of the study’s authors, University of Michigan Law School professor Reuven Avi-Yonah, told ThinkProgress Monday is that the way the bill is currently structured will personally benefit members of Congress and their donors.
“This is a classic trickle-down economic story, and it’s never happened,” Avi-Yonah said Monday. But Avi-Yonah said he doesn’t think Republicans in Congress really believe trickle-down economics — the idea that cutting taxes for wealthy corporations and individuals will create jobs and spur economic growth — will actually work this time around.
Rather, he said, “I think they know the economics, and they’re just interested in helping themselves and their donors.”
Overhauling the tax code in this way is not only going to benefit the most well-off, David Kamin, an NYU law professor and one of the lead authors of the study, told ThinkProgress Monday, but it’s also been constructed in a haphazard way that arbitrarily benefits some people over others (owners over employees, for example) and ultimately undermines the basic integrity of the income tax.
“They’ve managed to come up with a bill that even as it does that” — benefits the rich and undermines the middle class — “draws haphazard lines that pick winners and losers,” Kamin said. “I can say confidently that this will be the best thing that ever happened to the billable hours of tax attorneys in modern history.”
One way the conference committee bill does exactly that is by expanding pass-through eligibility. Pass-through entities don’t pay income taxes at the corporate level, but rather allocate income across owners, who then pay income taxes, but the Republican tax bill would give the owners in pass-through entities their own tax rate. In earlier versions of the plan, firms needed to have wage-earning employees in order to take full advantage of the lower rate and other deductions. But now, firms with no wage-earning employees — firms that own only certain kinds of property and have no wage-earning employees — could take advantage of the lower tax rate put forth in the conference committee bill.
“This change,” the study’s authors write, “encourages firms to game the rule by increasing their ownership of qualifying property… and possibly even by replacing workers in the process.”
Additionally, the pass-through subsidiary can be used to deduct compensation of highly-paid executives at public corporations.
The bill also creates an opportunity for taxpayers to use corporations as tax shelters in an effort to pay at a lower rate. This incentive is marginally reduced in the new version of the bill compared to the Senate version thanks to a slightly higher corporate rate and lower individual rate, but the tax savings when using a corporation as a shelter would still be considerable, Monday’s study’s authors write.
The conference committee bill also creates a number of tax avoidance opportunities for taxpayers with international operations, including the opportunity to claim a lower export rate when they sell products abroad, even if those products are sold right back into the U.S.
Basically, Avi-Yonah said Monday, the bill means that the more of their business corporations and wealthy individuals shift away from the United States, the less taxes they’ll pay — a far cry from Trump’s promises to bring jobs back to the country and punish corporations who try to outsource labor. All of this means that corporate accountants — and the personal accountants of the ultra-rich — will be busy making sure their patrons pay as little taxes as possible, but, as Avi-Yonah put it Monday, “This next tax season is going to be a mess for regular people.”
“I think any tax reform would fail to get taxes on a post card, but there are things we can do to make it simpler,” Kamin, the NYU professor, said Monday. “So maybe they were never gonna get on a postcard, did they at least simplify the system? No.”
The Senate passed its version of the tax plan earlier this month, and Republicans are now rushing to get the bill on the president’s desk before the new year. The most recent version of the bill — clocking in at 503 pages — was released on Friday evening, and Republicans want to vote on the bill early this week.