Legislation

Democrats Eye Taxing Stock Buybacks and Partnerships to Pay for Agenda

The Finance Committee is also leaning toward changing the rules that large business partnerships have used to avoid taxation and evade Internal Revenue Service audits. Congress drafted the rules when partnerships were dominated by small businesses, like doctors’ offices. But increasingly, partnerships are large companies or subsidiaries of major corporations, arrayed in complex, overlapping configurations to allow their owners to shift profits, losses and deductions to evade taxes.

Some 70 percent of partnership income now goes to the top 1 percent of earners, and the tax minimization methods have become so complex that ordinary I.R.S. agents are not allowed to conduct certain audits without the assistance of top-flight I.R.S. lawyers.

“The constant theme running through our tax code is, paying taxes is mandatory for working people, but optional for wealthy investors and mega corporations. That’s especially true when it comes to pass-through businesses and partnerships, the preferred tax avoidance tools for those at the top,” Mr. Wyden said.

To change all that, Democrats want to constrain partnerships from gaming the system. Under the new rules, if two partners who were members of a single corporate group sold a shared asset, the profit would have to be divided equally, not parceled out disproportionately to maximize tax advantages. Similarly, partnership debt, which allows partners to take deductions and claim cash distributions, could not be shuffled from partner to partner to reduce their tax liabilities.

Those changes, without any increase in tax rates, would raise $172 billion over 10 years, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation, Congress’s official scorekeeper on tax matters.

Though it would raise less revenue, about $100 billion, the tax on buybacks could be the more far-reaching measure. Over the past decade, Apple has been the king of the stock buyback, spending $423 billion to retire its stock. Microsoft, in a distant second place, spent nearly $129 billion.

Some Democrats have favored setting the tax so high that buybacks would make no economic sense. But Democratic tax aides said on Thursday that they were trying to balance the desire to curtail stock buybacks with the need to raise revenue. At the very least, a 2 percent tax on buybacks could encourage companies to use excess cash to pay higher dividends, which shareholders pay taxes on.


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