In Social Policy Bill, Businesses See a Lot to Like. They Oppose It.
Resistance to tax increases outweighs the appeal of a $3.5 trillion measure containing child care credits and other items that corporations embrace.,
WASHINGTON — The far-reaching social policy bill under construction in Congress has much that corporate America has long sought from Washington.
Federal funding for family leave would help businesses that currently pay for it while helping those that do not. Child care tax credits would get women back in the work force. Income supports for young families could ease upward pressure on wages.
But the bill also contains plenty for corporate America to dislike — particularly the tax increases that would pay for it — and in the cold calculus of corporate lobbying, industries are working hard to bring the whole enterprise down.
“It’s not fair to say we like all the spending but don’t want to pay for it. There is some investment that is more valuable than others,” said Neil Bradley, the executive vice president and chief policy officer for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. But, he added, “ultimately we’re making the case that taken as a whole, this is economically devastating for the country and in particular members’ districts and states.”
Businesses have long seen a role for the government in creating and sustaining the kind of trained, healthy work force that can keep them competitive in a global economy.
Access to affordable child care and early childhood education would help parents who stopped working during the coronavirus pandemic return to the labor force. Expanded higher education aid and worker retraining could create a more flexible labor pool, programs that business groups have supported for years. Federally financed family and medical leave would help small businesses that cannot afford it compete for talent with larger businesses providing the benefit.
“What’s holding back growth? Labor force participation, which hasn’t recovered; nonaffordability of child care, which is going to take the biggest leap forward that we’ve ever had; paid leave for illness and family leave,” said Representative Donald S. Beyer Jr., a Virginia Democrat who owned and ran car dealerships before his political career. “On the business side, I think it will make for a better workplace, an easier one with less tension.”
Yet the Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, the National Federation of Independent Business and the National Association of Manufacturers are implacably opposed. Many have made it clear: Taxes trump policy.
“We’re hearing somewhere between $1.8 and $3.5 trillion on job creators in America. That would take us back to where we were before the 2017 tax reforms,” Jay Timmons, the chief executive of the manufacturers’ association, said on CNBC. “We will oppose the bill with any of those factors in there.”
That 2017 tax law, signed by President Donald J. Trump, is at the heart of the opposition. The net tax cuts were supposed to cost the Treasury Department about $1.5 trillion over 10 years, but the total tax cutting, more than $5 trillion over a decade, was far larger than the tax increases now being contemplated — though it was partly offset by other tax increases, mainly on individuals.
The major business groups are divided on precisely how to respond to the emerging social policy bill, but they are united in their defense of the Trump-era tax cuts. For instance, the Retail Industry Leaders Association, in a letter to congressional leaders on Thursday, embraced a proposal by President Biden to create a corporate minimum tax, declaring, “For too long, some of the largest corporations have paid minimal or no taxes.”
But retailers pleaded with lawmakers to hit other companies first before even contemplating an increase in the corporate income tax rate, which the 2017 tax cut lowered to 21 percent from 35 percent. Mr. Biden has proposed raising it to 28 percent.
“This is, in many ways, just a small response to the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act bill that passed under Trump, which led to some $2 trillion in lost revenue that could have gone to the public investments that we are all calling for and everyone agrees are needed,” said Didier Trinh, the director of policy at the Main Street Alliance, a liberal small-business group that is dwarfed by the groups opposing the measure. “The corporate tax rate at 28 percent would only be halfway to the pre-Trump tax rate.”
Beyond the corporate tax rate, Democrats are considering taxing business repurchasing of stocks, raising taxes on overseas profits, limiting tax write-offs for foreign investment, tightening access to a special low tax rate for partnerships and other companies that do not pay corporate income taxes, and dozens of other measures.
Jeffrey Hollender, a co-founder and former chief executive of Seventh Generation, which makes “green” household and personal care products, said Congress’s progress toward what would be the most significant expansion of the social safety net since the 1960s was testing the business community’s stated commitments to social change. He said he was not surprised that the calls for change were not standing up to the reality of paying for it.
“People say they’re for this new stakeholder economy, that they’re committed to sustainability,” said Mr. Hollender, now the chief executive of the liberal American Sustainable Business Council. “But at the same time, there is a system of incentives designed to maximize profits, and when those profits are threatened, businesses don’t like it.”
More mainline business groups recoiled at the accusation. Mr. Bradley, of the Chamber of Commerce, agreed that parts of the Democratic vision mirrored the business lobby’s longstanding wishes. Accessible child care is a high priority, he said, and addressing climate change with investments in clean energy is overdue.
“The administration was right to raise I.R.S. enforcement to close the tax gap,” he added. “We want a pro-growth tax code, but we want people to comply with that tax code.”
But he said the way Democrats were addressing those issues — by hastily lumping them into one voluminous $3.5 trillion measure to be passed through a fast-track process known as reconciliation — guaranteed opposition.
For instance, business groups had been working with lawmakers from both parties to try to create a paid family and medical leave program that would be paid for with a payroll tax, shared among businesses, workers and the government. To satisfy Mr. Biden’s pledge not to raise any taxes on people with incomes below $400,000, the payroll tax has disappeared, replaced by a variety of tax increases on rich people and corporations that are no longer connected to the program they are to finance.
“Paid family leave, outside a reconciliation context, would require intense negotiations and trade-offs, but it wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility that we could find a proposal that we could support,” Mr. Bradley said. “Inside reconciliation, it’s only getting worse.”
The Business Roundtable, which represents the chief executives of the nation’s largest corporations, expressed a similar desire. “There is strong bipartisan support for some of these policies, and we encourage Congress to take them up through that deliberative process, not via reconciliation,” the group said in a statement.
To many Democrats, that sounds like an excuse, “a tactic to avoid having to pay,” Mr. Hollender said. For many of the programs under consideration, like paid family leave, recently championed by Ivanka Trump, former President Donald J. Trump’s older daughter, bipartisan negotiations have dragged on fruitlessly for decades. Now that legislative efforts are moving forward in earnest, supporters are dropping away.
Heather Boushey, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, defended the broad-based approach of addressing social policy needs and paying for them with tax policies generally devised to address income inequality, not narrowly tailored as direct offsets to specific programs.
“This is a pro-growth agenda, based on the notion that when the middle class does well everyone does well,” she said, “and one history will show is the right way to go.”