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Tech titans lobby Congress for giant tax break

Firms invest to lobby Congress to trim overseas profit levy from 35% to 5.25%

Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau

Nov. 25, 2011

Washington -- Silicon Valley's tech titans are in full holiday mode - tax holiday that is.

Google, Apple, Oracle, Cisco and other multinationals have fielded more than 160 lobbyists and consultants - including, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, 60 insiders such as Karen Olick, former chief of staff for Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. - to get Congress to give them a giant tax break on their overseas profits.

U.S. multinationals currently have $1.4 trillion parked offshore. A rising portion of it is held in tax havens using innovative tax dodges known as the "Dutch Sandwich" and "Double Irish."

Banded together with pharmaceutical companies and other multinationals in a group called the Win America coalition, Bay Area technology giants say that slashing their tax rate from 35 percent to 5.25 percent on foreign profits they return or "repatriate" to the United States will create millions of jobs.

Currently, corporations are allowed to defer U.S. taxes on foreign earnings, paying the 35 percent corporate tax rate only if they return the money to the United States.

Both parties in Congress, desperate to find something they can agree on to goose the economy, are warming to the idea.

Last tax break didn't work

But the last time a holiday was tried in 2004, under a law Boxer sponsored, billions of dollars in tax breaks went to a tiny swath of multinationals concentrated in the technology and pharmaceutical industries, many studies found.

Most of the money went to dividends, stock buybacks and executive pay, despite express prohibitions. Some companies, such as Hewlett Packard, cut jobs after repatriating earnings, while boosting executive pay. Overall, the Congressional Research Service said, the holiday did not create jobs or boost domestic investment.

The tech companies frame the tax holiday as "opening the door to let the puppy in out of the rain, the poor dollars will come back and find a warm home here in the U.S.," said Edward Kleinbard, a tax law professor at the University of Southern California and former chief of staff on Congress's Joint Committee on Taxation.

In fact, he said, the multinationals "are terrified" that Congress will tax their overseas earnings to finance a broader corporate tax overhaul. "The strategy is to get the money out" before then, Kleinbard said.

The companies warn that Congress better act fast, or else they will keep their money overseas permanently.

"The simple truth is that the longer we wait, the more money will be spent overseas, and these foreign investments are unlikely to return to the U.S.," the coalition executives wrote Nov. 15 to congressional leaders and President Obama.

Tax experts said funneling foreign earnings through subsidiaries in Ireland, Switzerland, Bermuda and other tax havens by U.S. multinationals is a growing problem.

An investigation last year by Bloomberg found that Google saved $3.1 billion in taxes since 2007, reducing its tax rate to 2.4 percent, using the "Dutch Sandwich" or "Double Irish" tax schemes. The report said money Google earned abroad was sent to a subsidiary in Ireland, then to the Netherlands, and then to a subsidiary in Bermuda.

Shell corporations

Because the technology and drug industries rely on intellectual property such as patents and operate globally, they are well positioned to exploit overseas tax havens. Intellectual property is intangible, hard to value and easily transferred.

"The U.S. is the hotbed not only of computer and biosciences high-tech but also of high-tech tax technologies," Kleinbard said. "Some ideas like the Double Irish and Dutch Sandwich are literally cloneable."

A report last month by the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., found that 94 percent of the $3.3 billion Oracle repatriated after the 2004 tax holiday came from a shell subsidiary in Ireland, while Intel's repatriations came mainly from a shell corporation in the Cayman Islands.

The corporations have "160 registered lobbyists and who knows how many more running around the Hill telling everybody how they have to have this," said a Senate aide who would not speak for attribution. "We'd all like a 5 percent tax rate. Of all the people who should get it, why should it be the companies that put money offshore?"

The companies have hired top-shelf lobbyists and consultants, including former aides to the chairs of the House and Senate tax writing committees, former aides to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Anita Dunn, former communications director for President Obama.

The coalition is pushing two bills. The House version by Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, would cut the 35 percent rate on foreign earnings to 5.25 percent for one year, just like Boxer's 2004 tax holiday. It has support from such odd bedfellows as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., Bay Area Democrats Anna Eshoo of Palo Alto, and Zoe Lofgren and Mike Honda of San Jose.

A Senate bill by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Kay Hagan, D-N.C., which Boxer is co-sponsoring, would reduce the tax rate to 8.75 percent, going as low as 5.25 percent if the firms hire more workers.

To attract votes, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., wants to attach the tax holiday to an infrastructure bank, even though the Joint Tax Committee said the holiday would cost $79 billion over a decade, and it won't pay for the bank.

'Slap in the face'

Levin said the tax holiday would be paid for by the 96 percent of U.S. companies that don't use tax havens. Frank Knapp, president of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, called a tax holiday "a slap in the face" for other businesses.

The Win coalition points to studies by politically connected former insiders that say a tax holiday would create millions of jobs. These include UC Berkeley Professor Laura Tyson, a former top economist for President Bill Clinton, and Douglas Holtz-Eakin, past director of the Congressional Budget Office and adviser to McCain during his 2008 presidential run.

The Tyson report acknowledged that repatriated earnings might go to wealthy shareholders but said the trickle-down effect of their increased spending "will nonetheless stimulate aggregate demand."

Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead


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