Thursday, November 20th, 2014

The Obameter

Expose Special Interest Tax Breaks to Public Scrutiny


"Will ensure that any tax breaks for corporate recipients — or tax earmarks — are also publicly available on the Internet in an easily searchable format."


Updates

Obama never fought for a tax earmark database as president

As a candidate, Barack Obama said he would shine light on federal tax breaks for corporations. It was part of a larger push to reduce the influence of special interests in Washington.

On his "Ethics Agenda,” he said he would list tax breaks for corporate recipients online in an "easily searchable format.”  

In his campaign promise, Obama used the phrase "tax earmark,” which isn't an official government label, but one that some people use to describe tax breaks for activities such as research and development or building affordable housing. Businesses can reduce their corporate income tax by pursuing these tax credits or deductions.

John Wonderlich, policy director for the Sunlight Foundation, a pro-transparency group, said the tax breaks should be disclosed more clearly in the same way that campaign contributions are.

"We should understand, given all that influence, what kind of tax breaks (businesses) receive,” Wonderlich said.

The bipartisan Simpson-Bowles deficit commission echoed Obama's criticism of tax earmarks as a favor to special interest groups. The commission's final report in December 2010 said tax earmarks represent $1.1 trillion in spending every year through the tax code, which "provides special treatment to special interests. The code presents individuals and businesses with perverse economic incentives instead of a level playing field.”

We couldn't find any sign of progress since the commission's 2010 criticisms.

"There's nothing approaching a comprehensive database like this,” said Carl Davis, a senior analyst at Citizens for Tax Justice, a left-leaning research group on tax policy.

Congress' Joint Committee on Taxation publishes regular estimates on the amount of money being saved by individuals and corporations through tax breaks, but those figures are in the aggregate. For instance, a tax credit for electricity production from wind, biomass and poultry waste saved businesses about $200 million in 2008. The public cannot dig deeper to find every single company that benefited from the tax credit though.

"Tax returns are private. They're confidential. It's not possible to connect a particular provision to a beneficiary,” said Donald Marron, director of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.

The Citizens for Tax Justice published a report in November 2011 that comes close with a sample of business, based in financial disclosures in the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

In its "Company-by-Company Notes,” the group estimates corporate tax breaks by business and the type of tax break the business receives. For example, the report found that Boeing saved $158 million in 2010 through the research-and-experimentation tax credit and ConocoPhillips saved $82 million through the Domestic Production Activities Deduction.

Information on tax breaks by recipient is not available for every business and it isn't easy to search, Davis said.

Since we couldn't find any record of Obama ever pushing for a tax-earmark database as president, much less creating one, we rate this a Promise Broken.

Sources:

Sources:
Interview with Carl Davis, Citizens for Tax Justice, July 9, 2012

Interview with John Wonderlich, policy director for the Sunlight Foundation, July 5, 2012

Interview with Donald Marron, director of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, July 6, 2012

Email interview with Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at The Cato Institute, July 5, 2012

Good Jobs First, Show Us the Subsidies, December 2010

The National Commission of Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, The Moment of Truth, December 2010

The Joint Committee on Taxation, Congress of the United States, Estimates Of Federal Tax Expenditures For Fiscal Years 2004-2008, June 14, 2012

Citizens for Tax Justice, Corporate Taxpayers and Corporate Tax Dodgers 2008-10, November 2011

No 'special interest' tax breaks database yet

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama said that his administration "will ensure that any tax breaks for corporate recipients — or tax earmarks — are also publicly available on the Internet in an easily searchable format."

The promise didn't specify whether the provisions would be publicly accessible as bills were being written or only after they had been sent to the president. But this issue is moot because no such database exists yet.

The administration has put notable emphasis on increasing transparency. For instance, on Jan. 21, 2009 -- one day after he was inaugurated -- Obama issued a Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, instructing the director of the Office of Management and Budget to issue an Open Government Directive. On Dec. 8, 2009, the OMB issued the directive. In it, the OMB said that "each agency shall take prompt steps to expand access to information by making it available online in open formats," adding that "the presumption shall be in favor of openness (to the extent permitted by law and subject to valid privacy, confidentiality, security, or other restrictions)." It sets timetables for providing data to the public, with the first coming just 45 days after issuance.

In addition, the public can now obtain financial disclosure forms for executive branch officials -- though at least for now, the forms have to be requested individually, rather than being immediately downloadable from the Internet. Finally, the White House is now posting visitor logs on the Web.

But references to the specific promise to provide transparency for tax breaks does not appear in searches of Whitehouse.gov, Google or Nexis. In addition, at least one transparency watchdog said he has not heard about progress on this promise. So we will call it Stalled.

Sources:

Office of Management and Budget, " Open Government Directive ," Dec. 8, 2009

E-mail interview with Jim Harper, director of information policy studies, Cato Institute, Dec. 18, 2009