If anything is more bipartisan than massive overspending, it’s corporate welfare. That’s why the 2-year budget deal Congress passed and President Trump signed last week was a perfect piece of bipartisan swampiness.
The bill’s budget-busting price tag made headlines, as did the dismantling of the Tea Party-era spending caps known as sequestration. But all the attention on the Republican Party’s hypocrisy on deficits left insufficient attention for the other deplorable aspect of the bill: the revival of expired special-interest tax breaks.
One subtitle of the bill is “Incentives for Growth, Jobs, Investment, and Innovation.” When you hear the word “incentives” on Capitol Hill, or in state or local government, it usually means "subsidies and corporate welfare.” Politicians claim these measures aren’t mere handouts, but are instead ways to “incentivize” businesses into socially or economically desirable activities.
Setting aside the fatal conceit in that mindset, the Bipartisan Budget Act’s “incentives” don’t even meet that definition, because they apply to the past. A bill that passes today giving you a tax break for something you did last year doesn’t create incentives, unless a time travel or clairvoyance tax credit is the issue.
The bill includes an extension of the “7-year recovery period for motorsports entertainment complexes.” In other words, it’s a special tax break that applies only to NASCAR tracks and the like. The “7-year recovery period” means that the owner of a racetrack gets to divide its cost over only 7 years for tax deduction purposes. By contrast, if you’re a landlord, you have to divide the cost of your rental home over 30 years. The speedway provision pretends, in effect, that a racetrack survives only 7 years.
Maybe you can justify this special tax break as an “incentive” to stimulate local economies? No. Because the break “shall apply to property placed in service after December 31, 2016,” the bill reads. In other words, this is a tax break for speedways built last year.
The same is true for films and television shows produced in the U.S. in 2017: They will get special expensing rules, giving them a tax “incentive” for something they did earlier even without that incentive.
The green-energy industry won big with retroactive extensions of “fuel cell property” tax credits for “solar electric property,” “solar water heating property,” “small wind energy property,” and “geothermal heat pump property,” that go forward until 2021.
Fuel-cell vehicles get a special tax credit under this bill. If you buy a two-wheeled electric vehicle (a plug-in-scooter you could call it), this bill gives you a tax credit on 10 percent of the purchase price.
The refinery industry also got a retroactive extension of the dollar-per-gallon biodiesel tax credit — basically a rebate to refiners. That credit expired at the end of 2016, but the bipartisan budget bill extended it.
Some fellow free-market and small-government types object to the words “subsidy” or “corporate welfare” to describe special tax breaks. Tax cuts, after all, are merely about you — or some new speedway, or some owner of new geothermal heat pump property — keeping more of your own money.
That’s true enough if you consider tax cuts in the abstract. But consider a targeted tax cut that goes to one specific class of people or companies, together with the high tax rates on people who don’t engage in the favored activities. Then you see that taking money from Sam if he doesn’t do business with Joe, and leaving Julie alone because she does business with Peter is, on net, subsidizing Julie and Peter.
When those tax cuts are retroactive, as many of them in this bipartisan budget deal are, then it’s clearly just a handout to well connected special interests for doing what they would have done anyway.
Ain’t bipartisanship grand?