Editor’s note: The following piece originally appeared on the website of the Tax Foundation. It is reprinted here with permission.
Yesterday, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R., Texas) unveiled the committee’s tax-reform legislation. The widely anticipated tax-reform bill includes hundreds of structural changes to the tax code, a summary of which is available here. However, some changes are more significant than others. Thus, here are the eight most important provisions in the House Ways and Means tax plan in no particular order.
2. Pass-through business income would be taxed at a maximum rate of 25 percent. In the U.S., small companies are generally organized as pass-through businesses. This means that their income is taxed on their owners’ tax returns and not at the business level. While economists widely agree that C Corporations are less tax-advantaged than pass-through businesses under current law, the House Ways and Means tax plan attempts to bring both business types closer to rate parity by setting a maximum rate on pass-through business income.
However, without appropriate anti-abuse rules this could create incentives for individuals to reclassify their personal income as business income to take advantage of the lower rate. Therefore, the plan includes a number of anti-abuse rules, beginning with the assumption that 70 percent of pass-through business income is compensation (subject to ordinary rates) while 30 percent is business income (subject to the lower pass-through rate). Certain specified service industries (including health, law, financial, and professional services) would be permitted to claim the lower rate only to the extent that they can “prove out” the share of income that constitutes business income. Even with these guardrails, the provision is likely to create opportunities for tax arbitrage, and it adds complexity to the tax code.
Corporate income taxes are intended to be imposed on net income after expenses, which is why businesses deduct the costs of compensation and most other expenses. Capital expenditures, however, are a special case. When businesses invest in capital expansion, instead of writing down the cost immediately, they must do so across a depreciation schedule that stretches anywhere from three to 39 years. The House Ways and Means tax plan would change that — temporarily and in part.
Under the plan, short-lived capital expenditures (currently subject to “bonus” depreciation) could be fully expensed, though this provision would be slated to sunset in five years. Section 179 expensing for pass-through businesses would increase from $500,000 to $5 million, with a higher phaseout threshold. These provisions would remove some of the tax code’s current bias against investment, though the temporary and limited nature of the provisions may mute the economic impact.
4. The U.S. would move to a territorial tax system. In much of the industrialized world, domestic corporations are taxed on their domestic income alone (a so-called territorial tax system). In the U.S., by contrast, companies are taxed on their worldwide income, with credits for taxes paid to other countries (a so-called worldwide tax system). If tax liability is lower in another country in which a controlled foreign corporation operates, the residual amount is paid to the United States. This increases overall liability and makes the U.S. comparatively unattractive as a home for multinational corporations. The proposed tax plan would convert the U.S.’s worldwide tax regime into a territorial system, enhancing competitiveness and undercutting the traditional rationales that encouraged corporate inversion and the offshoring of corporate income.
5. Many itemized deductions would be eliminated. For individuals, the mortgage-interest and charitable deductions, as well as the property-tax portion of the state and local tax deduction (capped at $10,000), would remain, but other itemized deductions would be eliminated. The elimination of many itemized deductions would broaden the individual income-tax base as a means to pay for lower overall rates. Their elimination would also be offset by an increase in the standard deduction and a higher child tax credit.
6. The estate tax would be repealed. The federal estate tax, which raises very little revenue but encourages significant tax arbitrage and avoidance activity, would be repealed under the plan after six years. The plan immediately increases the exemption to $10 million. Economists tend to see the estate tax as one of the most economically harmful taxes per dollar of revenue raised.
7. The tax treatment of interest would change. The U.S. tax code is intended to include deductions on interest paid while taxing interest received, but in practice, a substantial portion of interest is untaxed. This results in a tax advantage for debt financing over equity financing, providing a subsidy for some investments while distorting business decision-making. The House Ways and Means tax plan would limit business net interest deductibility to 30 percent of a business’s earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) with a five-year carry-forward basis. Businesses with less than $25 million in gross receipts would be exempt from the limitation.
8. Tax expenditures would be curtailed. The plan would eliminate multiple tax expenditures including the section 199 manufacturing deduction, deductions for like-kind exchanges of personal property, and deductions for entertainment. Credits for orphan drugs, private-activity bonds, rehabilitation, and contributions to capital would also be eliminated. With lower business income rates and better treatment of capital expenditures, there would be less need to rely on targeted incentives or industry-specific fixes embedded in the tax code.
Overall, the House Ways and Means tax plan represents a move in the direction of greater neutrality and global competitiveness. As the bill goes through markup, and as the Senate takes up tax reform legislation, every provision is subject to change. What happens with these eight proposed changes could be a good benchmark for the degree to which any final plan constitutes meaningful tax reform.