Health care reform bill targets tax shelters with heat-seeking missile

The health care reform (HCR) bill contains a rider that, by codifying and unifying recent case law, makes it much more difficult for tax shelters to avoid taxes. This may well explain why there is such fierce opposition to HCR from corporate interests. Their pet cash cows are getting gored. It has nothing to do with health care.

Here’s some background to put the issue in its proper context. Selling tax shelters is big business. Shelters with more than a few participants must be registered with the IRS, but “customized” plans do not require registration and are often not disclosed. They are designed to generate paper “tax losses” for corporations while involving little or no actual economic risk or cash outlay. Designing and marketing these schemes generate millions in fees for investment banks, attorneys, and accounting firms. This is big money indeed and goes deep into the heart of corporate America.

The new law provides:

     “that, in the case of any transaction to which the economic substance doctrine is relevant” [.i.e a tax shelter],”the transaction shall be treated as having economic substance only if (i) the transaction changes in a meaningful way (apart from Federal income tax effects) the taxpayer’s economic position, and (ii) the taxpayer has a substantial purpose (apart from Federal income tax effects) for entering into the transaction.”

The IRS has now codified the economic substance doctrine into a two-pronged test across the country which supercedes the varying previous interpretations in different federal circuits.

So, a tax shelter must now have economic substance, and it must have a purpose other than federal tax reduction. Further, the IRS will challenge taxpayers who try to slide in under the old interpretations. Also, penalties have been increased from 20% to 40% for underpayment of tax liability.

This is a heat-seeking missile into tax shelters. I can hear the fat cats yowling from here, can’t you? Imagine the effrontery of the government to say that tax shelters must do something else besides dodge taxes.

The ABA has requested clarification from the IRS (PDF):

     “This legislation changes the playing field significantly by mandating the two-prong test and imposing a strict liability penalty. Despite the detailed consideration of the legislation over the years, the 2010 Act did not resolve major pre-existing ambiguities in the economic substance doctrine (e.g., what counts as a substantial business purpose) and brings to the fore a number of other ambiguities, most particularly the question of when the doctrine is relevant.”

Translation. We’ve had a swell gravy train going for a while helping corporations evade billions in taxes and this new statute is mucking things up. Please make your law less broad so we can wriggle around it.

The IRS answers (PDF):

     “Section 7701(o)(5)(A) states that the term “economic substance doctrine” means the common law doctrine under which tax benefits under subtitle A with respect to a transaction are not allowable if the transaction does not have economic substance or lacks a business purpose.”

Translation: we need a big net for big fish — you won’t be getting a pass.

Make no mistake. This is a big deal for serious anti-tax shelter tightening. Is it extreme to conclude that if corporations (who don’t care whether or not we buy health insurance coverage) can get the little people foaming at the mouth about HCR — if they can persuade us to repeal the bill in its entirety — then maybe big business will be able eliminate that noxious anti-tax shelter rider while no one is paying attention? And the Tea Party will have then been played, as will the rest of us.

 

* Editor’s note- This post is a slightly re-worded version of Bob’s “Politics in the Zeros” blog.