Pat Garofalo is Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress.org at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. His work has also appeared in The Nation, the Guardian, the Washington Examiner, and In These Times.
Washington is a town currently gripped by deficit hysteria. Various commissions and congressional "gangs" have formed (and broken up) with the goal of crafting a plan to bring the nation's budget into balance. Even the media has been sucked into this vortex, dedicating far more of its time to covering the deficit than other economic issues, such as unemployment.
At the same time, both parties seem to agree that the nation's corporate tax code needs to be reformed. President Obama and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan each dedicated a portion of their respective budget plans to overhauling the federal corporate income tax, which is high on paper, but so riddled with loopholes, deductions, and outright giveaways that few corporations pay the full statutory rate (and several corporations pay no corporate income tax at all). [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]
This, then, should be an excellent opportunity to kill the proverbial two birds with one stone: cleaning up the corporate tax code, lowering the corporate tax rate, and still raising more revenue that can be put towards deficit reduction.
Despite all the hyperventilating over the deficit, both Republicans and Democrats have said that they want corporate tax reform to be revenue neutral, meaning no more or less revenue will be raised by the new system than was raised by the old. President Obama and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner have each extolled the virtues of deficit-neutral corporate tax reform. But if this is actually the road that's taken, it will constitute a colossal missed opportunity.
At the moment, corporate tax revenue has plunged to historic lows. In 1960, the corporate income tax provided more than 23 percent of federal revenue; the Office of Management and Budget estimates that it will provide less than 10 percent this year.
During the 1960s, the United States consistently raised nearly 4 percent of GDP in corporate revenue. During the 1970s, the total was still above 2.5 percent of GDP. Now, the U.S. raises less than 1.5 percent of GDP from the corporate income tax. As the Congressional Research Service put it, "Despite concerns expressed about the size of the corporate tax rate, current corporate taxes are extremely low by historical standards." [Read the U.S. News debate: Should the U.S. adopt a flat tax?]
The United States effective corporate tax rate is also low by international standards (though the 35 percent statutory rate is the second highest in the world). There are plenty of reasons for this drop, but chief among them is the proliferation of loopholes and credits clogging up the corporate tax code (alongside the growing use of offshore tax havens and the ability of corporations to defer taxes on offshore profits indefinitely).
Huge corporations, such as ExxonMobil, have recently had years where they paid literally nothing to the U.S. Treasury, despite making huge profits. The New York Times made waves by finding that General Electric paid no federal income tax last year, instead pocketing hundreds of millions of dollars in tax benefits. Mega-manufacturer Boeing has done the same, paying no federal taxes in 2009 while collecting $132 million in tax benefits. Google last year had a 2.4 percent effective tax rate, while California-based Broadcom's rate was just 1.4 percent, far below the rate that the average American pays.
The Treasury Department estimated in 2007 that corporate tax preferences cost $1.2 trillion in lost revenue over a decade. So there is ample room to remove credits and deductions (like those that benefit, amongst others, hugely profitable oil companies and agribusinesses), lower the statutory rate, while still bringing in more revenue. Some companies would see their taxes go up, but others would see their tax bills drop, and the corporate tax code would be more fair, efficient, and competitive, while ensuring that all corporations pay their fair share.
As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities put it, "corporate tax reform is a solid candidate to make a contribution to fiscal improvement … Taking a major revenue source off the table for deficit reduction at the outset would be ill-advised." Indeed, with corporate profits skyrocketing—up 81 percent over a year ago—and corporations sitting on trillions in cash reserves, there is no reason that corporate tax reform should be done in a way that is deficit neutral, besides the fact that raising more revenue will be politically difficult, as corporations will likely throw their considerable lobbying weight against such a move. But in the end, failing to raise additional corporate tax revenue will simply shift more of the deficit reduction burden onto a middle-class already battered by the Great Recession.