We’re almost there. Tax reform has passed both the House and Senate. It now seems very possible that the President will have a bill to sign by Christmas. As some have described: All they need to do now is “sand the rough edges”. But another saying is equally applicable to the business tax components: “The devil is in the details”. Specifically, details directly relating to the taxation of both C-corporations and pass-through entities. Terms that will impact those who do business here and those who do business around the globe. In other words, details that will significantly affect big businesses, small businesses and everybody in between.
The process for reconciling the two versions of tax reform is already underway as the House and Senate name members to the conference committee that will determine exactly what will be in the package before it is voted on one last time. Indications are that majority leaders want to have a committee report for their respective bodies to act on by the end of next week. So while the details still have to be worked out, both bodies are very engaged and they’ve passed legislation that defines the general parameters.
There will continue to be debate, in public and in private, over the deficit, how much growth tax reform will generate, who benefits and who doesn’t, but the House and Senate are effectively committed to getting something done at this point. On the individual income tax side, they will need to find agreement regarding the limits on the deductibility of state and local taxes (SALT), as well as mortgage interest. These items are important to individuals, important to the numbers and important politically. But the two sides really aren’t that far apart. A $10,000 SALT deduction of some kind and a healthy mortgage interest deduction will almost certainly remain in the final product.
But where they land on many items critical to business is harder to predict; a lot is up in the air. Let’s start with the corporate rate itself. While both plans call for a 20% rate, the President hinted it could still change slightly. That appears unlikely, however, but the rate is tied closely to the fiscal projections. And the fiscal projections are why the Senate delayed the effective date for corporate rate change to 2019, to reduce the cost of the bill. So when exactly the change goes into effect is at issue.
Similarly, the taxation of pass-through income is also unsettled. The House limits the pass-through rate at 25%. The Senate approach was to give a deduction to pass-throughs to keep their tax down. Effectively, the different approaches would not have drastically different bottom line impacts for most pass-through income recipients. The real complications come via provisions directed at guarding against individuals in higher brackets from categorizing personal income as business/pass-through income.
What about the issues of interest to multinationals who conduct huge volumes of business activity around the globe? The House and Senate agree that the U.S. must move to a territorial system and companies shouldn’t be taxed here on income they earn overseas. But beyond that basic principle, how multinationals and their foreign-sourced income is handled is anything but clear right now. Both the House and Senate have included forms of supplemental taxes intended to prevent their perception of “base erosion” and to discourage what they view as corporations “gaming the system”.
Likewise, they are still working through how best to address the repatriation of foreign-earned profits and are looking at special, one-time tax provisions to encourage companies to bring those assets back to the U.S. Another item important to many businesses of all types and sizes is how quickly, to what extent and for how long will they be able to claim deductions for capital expenditures/investments. Two final differences to note: (1) The Senate preserves the corporate alternative minimum tax; the House repeals it; (2) the House and Senate versions both limit the interest expense deduction, but in materially different ways. (A good summary of all the differences can be found in this report from the Tax Foundation.)
Of course, there are many, many other pending issues wrapped up in this legislation for the tax folks in Washington to resolve in short order. They include the health care mandate, estate tax, exemptions for educational institutions and nonprofits, and the list goes on. Tax reform appears close. Let’s hope good solutions are close too.