Who says this is a do-nothing Congress? Sure, it can’t agree on expanding the childcare tax credit or approve an increase in the minimum wage. Yet, as Congress prepares to adjourn, legislators were rushing to protect and expand tax subsidies for some of the largest, most profitable corporations in the world. Under current law, US exporters can set up largely paper presences in foreign tax havens like Barbados. The exporters can then exempt between 15 and 30 percent of their export income from taxes by routing products through these entities, called Foreign Sales Corporations. In a recent case filed by the European Union, however, the World Trade Organization ruled that the FSC tax break was an illegal subsidy.
Precedent has shown the United States more than willing to bend to the will of the WTO. For example, when the WTO ruled against an Endangered Species Act protecting sea turtles, the United States quickly eased its regulations. Yet when a multibillion-dollar tax incentive is at stake, Washington falls all over itself to protect corporate welfare.
Immediately after the WTO ruling against FSCs, the Clinton Administration, a few members of Congress and the business community began meeting in secret to work out a bill that eliminates FSC in name only while actually expanding export subsidies for a total cost to taxpayers of about $4 billion a year. The beneficiaries? General Electric, Boeing, Raytheon, Cisco Systems, Archer Daniels Midland and others. The House approved this bill with only forty minutes of debate and no amendments allowed, by a vote of 315 to 109. The bill was held up in the Senate because some objected to the tax break for arms manufacturers and subsidies for tobacco exports. Despite the objections, the bill is expected to be tacked onto a must-pass budget bill and signed by the President.
The proponents of this giveaway claim it will promote US jobs. However, the Congressional Budget Office, whose director was appointed by Republicans, has written, “Export subsidies do not increase the overall level of domestic investment and domestic employment…. In the long run, export subsidies increase imports as much as exports.” The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service reached a similar conclusion.
It gets worse. The tax break may actually subsidize moving US jobs overseas. There is no requirement that a substantial portion of a product covered by the subsidies be made with US content or with US labor. An Administration official said that an eligible product could have “little or no US content” and still qualify.
Not only is the legislation not economically justifiable, it is not likely to comply with the WTO ruling. The EU has already stated that the changes aren’t adequate, and it intends to seek authority to retaliate by imposing 100 percent tariffs on some $4 billion worth of US goods.
I am not a fan of the WTO. It is an unaccountable, secretive, undemocratic bureaucracy that looks out for the interests of multinational corporations and investors at the expense of human rights, labor standards, national sovereignty and the environment. But by pointing out that export subsidies like FSCs are corporate welfare, the WTO has done US taxpayers a favor. It has once again highlighted the fact that US trade policy is written by and for corporations, with no concern for workers, human rights or environmental protection.