March 05, 2014
by JOHN D. MCKINNON, Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama proposed his biggest tax increases yet on multinational corporations' overseas earnings—$276 billion that companies would have to pay over the next decade largely through changes designed to prevent companies from stashing profits offshore.

Administration officials said the changes, part of Mr. Obama's fiscal 2015 budget released Tuesday, would be paired with a separate reduction in corporate tax rates that would be included in a broad tax overhaul that he hopes to move through Congress.

But with the current partisan environment dimming chances for a major tax rewrite, some firms—particularly multinationals—are worried they won't get the rate reductions, but might get hit with tax increases anyway, as lawmakers scramble to keep some temporary programs funded.

There is some common ground between the parties, however. When Rep. Dave Camp (R., Mich.) rolled out his long-awaited tax overhaul plan last week, it also included tax increases on businesses to offset transportation spending.

"It does seem the first place both parties are looking [for revenue] is on the business side rather than on the individual side," said Michael Mundaca, a former Treasury tax official in the Bush and Obama administrations who now is co-director of tax at Ernst & Young's Washington office.

In the coming months, lawmakers will be looking for revenue to make up funding shortfalls in several important areas of the budget, including highway funding and health-care spending. They also must decide whether to try to raise new revenues to offset the price tag of extending some temporary targeted tax breaks that benefit favored groups, including many businesses.

Mr. Obama's budget on Tuesday opened the door to the possibility of raising taxes on businesses to fund infrastructure. It earmarks $150 billion of one-time revenues from a tax overhaul for shoring up the nation's increasingly shaky highway-funding system. It didn't specify exactly where that money would come from within the business tax system, but much of the administration's new revenue would come from its increases on multinationals' international operations.

Mr. Camp's proposal last week offered a similar formula, generating about $126 billion for highway and other transportation funding from a revamped system of international taxation. Both the president and Mr. Camp promise revenue neutral overhauls, although each with caveats.

"The international tax proposals are part of our reserve for business tax reform in the context of overall tax reform that would lower tax rates and enhance the competitiveness of American businesses," a Treasury spokesperson said.

Multinationals—particularly high-tech and some pharmaceutical firms—have been criticized in recent years for using complex tax maneuvers to stash more of their income in offshore tax havens. The Obama budget—as well as Mr. Camp's tax overhaul plan—propose a number of methods to discourage such so-called "base erosion."

The new White House proposals would, for example, tighten rules for digital transactions that some companies design to limit the taxes they pay on certain income. It would also tighten up on use of debt in U.S. operations to generate large deductions and shift profits overseas to countries with lower taxes.

An official with the Information Technology Industry Council, a tech-industry trade group, called the budget's tax proposals "a step backwards" for tax reform. The tax code "puts U.S. businesses at a competitive disadvantage with their global counterparts and is an obstacle to economic growth, so it does not make sense to propose billions of dollars in new taxes aimed at the tech sector, a hub of economic growth, job creation, and innovation," Miguel Martinez, the group's director of government relations said in a statement.

Mr. Obama's changes would also make it more difficult for companies to take an unfair advantage of different tax rules in certain countries, where one country might treat a hybrid instrument as debt while another country treats the same instrument as equity.

The budget also seeks to shore up rules against moving company headquarters overseas to reduce U.S. taxation—a gambit that more companies have been trying in the last few years.

The Business Roundtable, a group of CEO's of major firms, said on Tuesday that it was worried by Mr. Obama's proposals.

"The president's international tax proposals would move the U.S. economy in the wrong direction, placing U.S. companies in a worse competitive position than they face today," said BRT's president, former Michigan Gov. John Engler, a Republican. "Further, we believe that any corporate revenue generated by tax reform base broadening should be dedicated to creating a more modern and competitive tax system—not used on unrelated spending."

The BRT raised similar concerns about Mr. Camp's ideas last week.

Not everyone in the business community is so worried. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, says it is committed to working with lawmakers to find "sustainable, predictable, growing sources of revenue" to help shore up highway funding, which has been hit by the economic downturn as well as gas-mileage improvements.

This article is also available on the Wall Street Journal's website.