The top Republican tax writers in Congress and the biggest U.S.-based companies are warning that global negotiations to limit businesses from shifting profits to low-tax countries could harm Americans.
Representative Dave Camp and Senator Orrin Hatch said in a joint statement that other governments may be using the talks at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development as a way to “raid the American Treasury.”
“We are willing to work through these issues until an international consensus exists and we have achieved the right answer, but we will not be rushed into a bad outcome,” Camp, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Hatch, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, said yesterday.
The comments by Camp, of Michigan, and Hatch, of Utah, reflect growing concern by U.S. companies about the OECD’s Base Erosion and Profit Shifting initiative. Their big worry is that the OECD -- or countries acting alone -- could redefine the rules for where income is taxed, subjecting U.S. companies to higher taxes abroad.
Such levies, they contend, may shrink the U.S. tax base and raise costs for U.S.-based companies. The Business Roundtable, led by chief executive officers from companies including Honeywell International Inc. and Dow Chemical Co., registered its concerns yesterday, too.
Camp and Hatch issued the statement as OECD officials gathered in Washington for a conference on the plan. The OECD, made up of many major developed countries, is seeking an agreement on international tax rules, which would be followed by countries enacting their own laws to follow the guidelines.
At the same time, the absence of rules and the potential for unilateral action by companies could be worse than new rules, Will Morris of General Electric Co., who has been representing businesses in the talks, said at the conference.
Officials from the U.K., U.S. and OECD said they were having trouble agreeing on many issues. Difficult topics include how to decide where income is earned and how to prevent companies from taking advantage of gaps in rules that may leave some income untaxed anywhere.
“The hard bargaining that we’re engaged in is a sign that it’s real,” said Mike Williams, director of business and international tax for the U.K. Treasury.
The Business Roundtable issued a similar warning. “At a minimum, the project is increasing business uncertainty on the taxation of cross-border income,” Louis Chenevert, chairman and chief executive officer of United Technologies Corp., wrote in a letter to Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew.
“At its worst, it will result in the imposition of new, unprecedented taxes on trade and investment that will freeze business investment and slow economic growth,” Chenevert wrote.
Companies, particularly those that generate earnings from intangible assets such as patents, have become adept at shifting profits to low-taxed jurisdictions. The U.S. alone loses between $30 billion and $90 billion a year in forgone revenue from profit shifting, according to academic estimates compiled by the Congressional Research Service.
The U.S. Treasury is trying to help other countries reach a consensus while defending the U.S. tax base and U.S.-based companies that have been criticized in Europe.
The OECD, working off the instructions from the Group of 20 countries, is working to develop the rules over the next year or two.
“We understand there are concerns now, and we are working on ways to limit uncertainty as systems shift,” Pascal Saint-Amans, director of the OECD’s center for tax policy and administration, said in an e-mailed statement. “The worst-case scenario is for the U.S. to continue as is.”
Robert Stack, the U.S. Treasury’s top negotiator, said at the conference yesterday that he’s sometimes in the position of being the person resisting consensus.
The Treasury Department’s concerns include keeping taxpayer information confidential and pressing for countries to be able to tax only companies that have a physical presence in a jurisdiction. “This has been a very, very challenging project,” Stack said.
Once countries come up with the rules, implementation may be difficult.
John Koskinen, commissioner of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, said during a speech at the conference today that proposals to require companies to disclose their country-by-country tax payments may lead to heavy demand by foreign governments for information sharing.
That, Koskinen said, could pull IRS resources away from other priorities.
“We need to carefully consider the administrative impact of any decision,” he said. “Any new regime needs to be workable not only from the perspective of taxpayers but also from a tax administration standpoint.”