By Mark Holan, editorial director, ARTBA
For the second time in a week members of the House Ways and Means Committee discussed options for stabilizing the Highway Trust Fund (HTF), but the powerful tax-writing panel appears no closer to agreeing how it will pay for a long-term surface transportation bill.
The June 24 Subcommittee on Select Revenue Measures hearing focused on a revenue-generating scheme called repatriation. Here’s how it works: Multinational companies like General Electric, Microsoft, Apple, IBM and others that earn substantial profits outside of the U.S. and pay taxes in the country where those earnings occur. Repatriation would be required companies to bring their earnings back into the U.S. and have them taxed much lower than the current 35 percent corporate rate.
Repatriation has been identified by Republican House leaders as their preferred alternative to generating new trust fund revenue. It’s also been embraced in the Obama Administration surface transportation proposal, called GROW America. (See ARTBA’s analysis.)
“Current repatriation proposals are not that simple nor are they without serious policy implications,” said subcommittee Chairman Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) He added that repatriation cannot be done as a standalone; but must be part of broader international tax reform to create a more competitive system.
Several GOP members of the subcommittee expressed similar views during the hearing.
“Not all forms of repatriation are created equal,” said Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio), noting the issue gets complicated when deciding whether to go after overseas revenues that remain in cash or have already been invested in plants and equipment.
Even as the subcommittee was meeting, several business groups issued statements criticizing repatriation as a way to fund a long-term highway bill. These included The Business Roundtable, the National Association of Manufacturers, the RATE Coalition and the Alliance for Competitive Taxation.
Democrats at the subcommittee—and several Republicans—were critical of plugging the HTF with repatriated earnings. Several Democratic members also pushed to increase the highway user fee, which hasn’t been raised since 1993.
Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) railed against “faux hearings” that don’t fully consider the user fee. “The country is crumbling around us,” he said. “Congress has to face up to its responsibilities.”
During the June 17 full Ways and Means Committee hearing, however, Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) ruled out raising the gas tax.
ARTBA submitted a statement for the hearing record that noted repatriation is essentially the latest in a too long series of short-term trust fund patches and that the revenue crisis would only get worse under this scenario. ARTBA pointed to Congressional Budget Office projections that show the trust fund shortfall would grow to $19 billion if repatriation is used to enable a six-year reauthorization bill—the current gap is $11 billion. ARTBA is urging Congress to resolve the trust fund’s structural revenue deficit once and for all by raising the gas tax or enacting new highway user fees.