Alex Wong/Getty Images
President Obama speaks at the White House about the tax code on Monday as Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner looks on.
President Obama speaks at the White House about the tax code on Monday as Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner looks on. Alex Wong/Getty Images
President Obama vowed Monday to "detect and pursue" American tax evaders and go after their offshore tax shelters.
In announcing a series of steps aimed at overhauling the U.S. tax code, Obama complained that existing law makes it possible to "pay lower taxes if you create a job in Bangalore, India, than if you create one in Buffalo, N.Y."
The president said he wants to prevent U.S. companies from deferring tax payments by keeping profits in foreign countries rather than recording them at home, and called for more transparency in bank accounts that Americans hold in notorious tax havens like the Cayman Islands.
"If financial institutions won't cooperate with us, we will assume that they are sheltering money in tax havens and act accordingly," Obama said.
The president, who hammered on this issue during his long campaign for the White House, said at a White House event that his plan would generate $210 billion in new taxes over 10 years and "make it easier" for companies to create jobs at home. Over a decade, $210 billion would make a modest dent in a federal deficit expected to swell to $1.2 trillion in 2010.
Under the plan, companies would not be able to write off domestic expenses for generating profits abroad. The goal is to reduce the incentive for U.S. companies to base all or part of their operations in other countries.
He said the government also is hiring nearly 800 new IRS agents to enforce the U.S. tax code.
Congress is expected to resist significant portions of Obama's plan. Opponents say the proposals would put U.S. firms at a disadvantage.
"The plan will reduce the ability of U.S. companies to compete in foreign markets," said John Castellani, who heads the Business Roundtable, which represents some of the largest U.S. companies. "We believe it will not only reduce jobs, but it will also cripple economic growth here in the United States. It just couldn't have come at a worse time."
Gary Hufbauer, a senior fellow with the Peterson Institute for International Economics, says eliminating the deduction on U.S. expenses associated with foreign profits would encourage multinationals to move more of their essential functions abroad.
"Those are the good jobs at good pay that America should want," Hufbauer said. "I mean, do we want these headquarters' expenses to be incurred in Singapore or London?"
The administration is not seeking to repeal all overseas tax benefits. Obama called his proposal "a down payment on the larger tax reform we need to make our tax system simpler and fairer and more efficient for individuals and corporations."
"Nobody likes paying taxes, particularly in times of economic stress," Obama said. "But most Americans meet their responsibilities because they understand that it's an obligation of citizenship, necessary to pay the costs of our common defense and our mutual well-being."
The current tax code, he said, makes it too easy for "a small number of individuals and companies to abuse overseas tax havens to avoid paying any taxes at all."
Obama said he was willing to make permanent a research tax credit that was to expire at the end of the year and is popular with businesses. Officials estimate that making the tax credits permanent would cost taxpayers $74.5 billion over the next decade.
But administration aides said 75 percent of those tax credits cover the cost of workers' wages.
Under existing laws, companies with operations overseas pay U.S. taxes only if they bring the profits back to the United States. If they keep the profits offshore, they can defer paying taxes indefinitely. Obama's plan, which would take effect in 2011, would change that.
Obama officials also said they would close a Clinton-era provision that would cost $87 billion over the next decade by letting U.S. companies "check the box" and treat international subsidiaries as mere branch offices. Officials said it was meant as a paperwork shortcut that is now a widely used and perfectly legal way to avoid paying billions in taxes on international operations.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said the proposals would end "indefensible tax breaks and loopholes which allow some companies and some well-off citizens to evade the rules that the rest of America lives by."
Geithner called them "common-sense changes designed to restore balance to our tax code."
The White House said that in 2004, multinational corporations enjoyed an effective tax rate of 2.3 percent in the United States because of such allowances. Aides said that was the most recent year available for analysis.
From NPR staff and wire reports