Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The American Jobs Act's Poison Pill(s)

I had a completely different topic in mind for today's posting, but I'll have to come back to the energy implications of a potential European financial crisis later. Since President Obama's jobs speech to Congress last week I have been awaiting the text of the actual proposed bill, rather than the summaries I'd been seeing. It finally came out at the end of the day yesterday. I feel obliged to point out a few provisions that haven't been widely advertised, either in the original speech or on the fact sheet that the White House published. These include several measures related to alternative energy, such as the inclusion of some project categories within the purview of the proposed National Infrastructure Bank, or the funding for putting solar panels on abandoned and foreclosed buildings as part of their rehabilitation. However, I'm not sure how much any of this matters, because the bill sent to the Congress also includes a slate of provisions that were certain to be regarded as a "poison pill"--sections that would preclude passing it on the all-or-nothing basis that the President seemed to be pushing for last Thursday. Energy features prominently in these poison pill measures.

I can't do justice to a 155-page legislative draft in the few hours I've had to review it. I'll restrict my comments today to the "offset" provisions that escaped being mentioned in the administration's fact sheet and reserve comment on the other aspects of the bill for a later date, if necessary. It seems clear from reading Sections 431-442 that the architects of this bill view the US domestic oil and gas industry as a declining cash cow, rather than as the source of new jobs and growth that I described in last Thursday's posting. Those sections set out to repeal every single oil and gas industry tax benefit of which I was aware, and a couple I hadn't even heard of. Included are the Section 199 manufacturing tax credit enjoyed by every other manufacturing company in America, along with portions of the tax code designed to prevent US companies from being subject to double taxation on their global income, protections that I believe their non-US competitors enjoy automatically under the territorial tax systems in use in most developed countries. In a different context I wouldn't have found any of this surprising, but rather a measure of consistency, since the administration has pursued the termination of these benefits in every budget proposal since 2009 and in a number of bills introduced by its allies in Congress.

The surprise comes from their inclusion in a bill intended to provide immediate relief for the large number of Americans still out of work, and possibly to avert a double-dip recession--a bill described as consisting mainly of provisions that have been backed by both parties at various times. However, the legislative history and likely fate of the poison pill provisions is abundantly clear: they have failed every time they were proposed, including in the previous Congress in which the President's party held overwhelming majorities in both houses. Along with the other "offset" provisions, such as those limiting itemized deductions for taxpayers making more than $200-250,000 per year, or going after the tax treatment of hedge fund income and corporate jets, it's hard to see their inclusion in the American Jobs Act as anything other than politically motivated. This morning's headlines reflect the entirely predictable reaction to them.

It's not that these measures aren't a legitimate subject for debate and action. However, that debate is part and parcel of the growing bipartisan consensus on the need for comprehensive reform of our convoluted tax code, in which the majority of current deductions and exemptions, including those for energy, would be sacrificed in exchange for the lower tax rates necessary to make all US businesses--not just a chosen few--more globally competitive. Squandering that opportunity to pay for a short-term boost to the economy would, among other outcomes, leave the US energy sector less competitive and the nation worse off in the long run. Meanwhile, when the Congress rejects these poison pills and proceeds to cherry-pick among the bill's headline measures, it might also adopt the American Jobs Act's final provision, which dumps the problem of paying for it in the laps of the Supercommittee appointed to find the remainder of the deficit reductions agreed in the Budget Control Act of 2011--already a pretty tall order.

If there was ever a chance for a "clean" jobs bill to pass intact, the pursuit in this venue of the administration's long-standing agendas with the oil and gas industry, hedge fund managers, and corporate jet owners erases it. Whatever the outcome of the negotiations with and within the Congress over this bill, you can count on hearing a lot more about these issues between now and next November.

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