House Republicans have come up with a plan for corporate tax reform that might solve three pressing problems at once: The tide of U.S. companies moving their headquarters out of the country, President-elect Trump's desire for tariffs that runs counter to conservative orthodoxy, and the need to raise revenue to offset tax cuts.
A feature of the "Better Way" tax plan introduced by House Speaker Paul Ryan and the GOP in June would do all three — at least on paper.
The idea is to tax corporate income based on destination, meaning that goods and services sold outside the country would not be taxed regardless of where they are produced, and goods and services sold in the U.S. would be.
It would be an idea with sweeping implications. Yet it's only now starting to get attention, one Washington tax lawyer said, because many businesses and lobbyists presumed that Trump would lose and that the GOP tax plan would have no chance of passing. Now they're scrambling to understand the impact that the change would have on their businesses.
"It kills more than two birds with one stone, but it also provokes a lot of opposition," said Gary Hufbauer, a tax expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and a former director of the international tax staff at the Treasury Department.
Here's the first bird: House Republicans have suggested that the destination-based tax would eliminate the pressure for U.S. companies to seek "inversions," in which they merge with companies in low-tax countries to move their headquarters there.
Companies such as Pfizer have sought such deals to lower their tax bills on goods sold around the world. Unusually, the U.S. taxes companies on overseas profits, at the corporate rate of 35 percent, the developed world's highest. Countries such as Ireland do not tax international profits, so if companies can move their headquarters there they avoid taxes on sales in China, Germany, Brazil and everywhere else.
Under the GOP tax plan, the corporate tax rate would be cut to 20 percent, greatly reducing those incentives. But the destination-based tax would mean that goods sold overseas wouldn't get taxed, and goods imported would, eliminating the incentives for inversions altogether.
Stopping inversions is a goal that brings together Republicans and Democrats, both of whom fear companies, especially in their states or districts, moving headquarters or even operations abroad. In fact, the destination-based tax is an idea with bipartisan roots, having been proposed by Berkeley professor Alan Auerbach in a 2010 paper published by the left-leaning Center for American Progress.
The second bird would be to address Trump's desire, repeated as recently as Sunday, to apply tariffs on the products of companies that outsource jobs.
Under the border adjusted tax, imports would be taxed at 20 percent but exports would not. Economists argue that the border adjustment doesn't amount to a tariff, because, in theory, the dollar exchange rate should adjust to equalize prices between countries.
Nevertheless, Republicans will present it to Trump as such, and they might be successful.
When you first go through the plan, "this looks and feels a lot like a tariff," said Dean Zerbe, the national managing director at Alliantgroup and a former tax staffer on the Senate Finance Committee.
In an interview with the Washington Examiner last week, California Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee responsible for crafting the tax plan, explained how he would sell the border-adjustment feature as an alternative to an outright tariff. "We can actually just fix our tax code, and not have to slap on tariffs," he said.
Opposition to outsourcing jobs was one of the hallmarks of Trump's campaign. There are many reasons that a firm might seek to move operations out of the U.S., but the hope is that the GOP tax plan would mitigate the reasons related to taxes and convince Trump that tariffs are not needed.
The third and final bird would be revenue. The concept behind the Republican tax plan is to lower tax rates and make up the lost revenue by expanding the tax base by eliminating deductions and loopholes so that more transactions are taxed. But to cut the corporate rate to 20 percent, a lot of revenue-raising provisions are needed. The border adjustment helps with that.
A July report from the nonpartisan Tax Foundation, a think tank that generally favors lower business tax rates, delved into the math. Cutting the corporate tax rate to 20 percent would reduce tax revenue by $1.8 trillion over 10 years, or about half of total corporate taxes, the group found. Instituting a border adjustment for taxes would raise about $1 trillion.
For lawmakers thinking about how to make the math of the plan add up to get it through Congress, "this is kind of a plug-in to get you there," Zerbe said.
Those three features of the destination tax could help the GOP plan navigate the many obstacles to achieving tax reform.
There are many potential snags that may arise with the proposal as it gets more attention. Retailers and other companies that rely heavily on imports, which would be hit anew with the corporate tax, could stand to lose. But it represents Republicans' bet that they can finesse their way to tax reform.