The Big Tax Lie: Corporations Should Stop Complaining About Taxes They Rarely Paid

(Photo by Albin Lohr-Jones/Sipa USA via AP Images)

A demonstrator holds a sign at a rally in opposition to the Republican tax bill in New York City on December 2, 2017.

Since the $1.5 trillion tax cut pushed through by Congress and President Trump took effect in January, dozens of big corporations have engaged in a public relations blitz designed to convince middle-income families that they’ll benefit from the new law. Companies from AT&T and Boeing to Walmart and Wells Fargo have announced one-time employee bonuses or minimum-wage hikes, and have strongly implied that they simply couldn’t have made these worker-friendly moves before the new tax law chopped the 35 percent corporate tax rate nearly in half.

This slick corporate sales pitch is a sensible response to a new tax bill that is among the most unpopular tax plans in recent memory, largely because middle-income families understand they were at best an afterthought for the legislation’s authors. But these corporate claims are also profoundly misleading: Many of the biggest and most profitable American corporations, including some of the “bonus companies,” routinely paid little or nothing in corporate income taxes even before the new law took effect.  

Even as these companies put out splashy press releases touting their largesse, the Securities and Exchange Commission required them to publish basic information regarding the federal income tax these companies have paid on their U.S. profits. The latest such disclosures cover tax year 2017, the last full year before the Trump administration’s big new corporate tax cuts took effect. The story these disclosures tell differs radically from the Republican narrative.

A new report from my organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, digs into these disclosures and finds that 15 profitable Fortune 500 companies collectively earned $24 billion in U.S. profits during 2017—and each paid zero, or less, in federal income taxes last year. These companies collectively got almost $1.4 billion in tax rebates in 2017, which works out to an average tax rate of minus 5.6 percent. These corporations cover the full spectrum of the American economy, from tech firms (Amazon) to financial giants (MetLife and Prudential) to auto parts (Penske) and cable TV (Dish Networks).

Last year was no anomaly: The same 15 corporations were almost as successful in their past tax-dodging efforts. In the last five years, these companies paid a collective federal income tax rate of just 1.8 percent on nearly $120 billion of U.S. profits. All of which is to say that the 35 percent tax cut that has been Congress’s bête noire for so long appears to have been little more than an abstraction for these companies.

What makes this situation especially irksome is that these prominent tax avoiders include some of the companies that went out of their way to offer high-profile worker bonuses in the wake of the tax cut. MetLife announced in February that it will increase its minimum wage to $15 “as a result of tax reform.” But since the company paid just a 3.4 percent tax rate over the past five years, it’s hard to see how the tax system was ever keeping them from paying a living wage to members of its workforce. Ryder, Penske, Bank of America, JetBlue and AT&T each made similar announcements in January—and none of these companies paid even a third of the 35 percent tax rate last year.

These findings would be less disturbing if we knew that the new tax law had, as Trump routinely promised, closed the many tax loopholes these companies used to zero out their taxes. But the new law largely abandoned this goal, and instead made some of the biggest corporate giveaways even more generous. Accelerated depreciation loopholes allowed many of these companies to write off their capital investments faster than they wear out—and the new law allows them to write off many of these expenses immediately. It’s very likely, then, that these companies will be even more successful in avoiding taxes going forward than they have been in previous years.

The Republican claim that cutting corporate tax rates will create jobs is hardly new; it’s been a major GOP talking point for decades. But it’s always been based on a big lie: that our corporate taxes are among the highest in the world. Yet even before the Trump tax law cut the statutory corporate rate nearly in half, from 35 percent to 21 percent, American corporate taxes as a share of the economy were below those of most OECD nations. Going forward, our corporate tax is likely to plummet even further.

But all is not lost. Corporate tax reform is possible and it’s imperative that the country address the looming difficulties that these cuts create. The Congressional Budget Office recently warned that the new tax regime has put the United States on an unsustainable fiscal path, with federal debt set to equal 96 percent of the U.S. economy, or $29 trillion, by 2028.

But if tax cuts got us into this mess of red ink, responsible tax reform can help America get back in the black. The next Congress must do what this Congress failed to: Take a hard look at the huge array of corporate giveaways that make tax avoidance so easy for companies, from Amazon to Xerox. Ending the giveaways, and requiring big corporations to pay at least the same income tax rates that middle-income workers now face, will help balance the budget and could go a long way toward restoring the public’s trust in the country’s elected officials and its institutions.

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