The Surly Subgroup Turns One!

Time flies when you’re having fun, I guess. Today is the one-year blogiversary of the Surly Subgroup. What started off as a group-blogging experiment hatched at last year’s Critical Tax Conference at Tulane Law School has provided quite a bit of entertainment for Surly bloggers and our guest bloggers, and hopefully for our readers as well.

It’s obviously been a big year on tax and other fronts. Since our inception, we’ve published 206 blog posts on a variety of topics. And we’ve drawn readers from 140 different countries.

Surly regulars and guest bloggers have covered various tax-related issues surrounding politics and the 2016 election—including disclosure of presidential tax returns, the Emoluments Clause, the Trump Foundation, and the Clinton Foundation. We’ve written about churches, 501(c)(3)s and the IRS treatment of non-profits. We’ve discussed the tax reform proposals of the 2016 presidential candidates and the #DBCFT. We’ve written several administrative law posts about Treasury Regulations and rulemaking.

Politics aside we’ve also covered other important issues in tax policy—including taxation and poverty, healthcare, tax policy and disabilities, tax compliance, and tax aspects of the Puerto Rico fiscal crisis. We’ve discussed several issues in international and cross-border taxes, touching on the EU state aid debate, the CCCTB, taxation and migration, the Panama Papers, tax leaks more generally, and tax evasion in China.

We hosted our first ever online Mini-Symposium on Tax Enforcement and Administration, which featured posts by ten different authors on a variety of tax administration topics. The Mini-Symposium was spearheaded by Leandra Lederman. Leandra had organized and moderated a discussion group on “The Future of Tax Administration and Enforcement” at the 2017 AALS Annual Meeting, and many of the discussion group participants contributed to the online symposium. We hope to organize future online symposia on other topics.

We’ve blogged about various conferences, workshops, and papers, both tax related and not-so-much tax related. We’ve also had lots of fun writing about taxes in popular culture – Surly bloggers and guest bloggers have written about the tax aspects of Pokémon Go, tax fiction, music-related tax issues (Jazz Fest! Prince! “Taxman”!), soccer players, dogs, Harry Potter fan fiction, Star Trek, and John Oliver. Surly bloggers even recorded a few tax podcasts!

In short, it’s been a busy year, and we’ve had a lot of fun with the Surly platform. We hope you have as well. Going forward, we’re going to keep the blog posts coming. We also hope to draw more regular and guest bloggers and to organize other online symposia.

Thanks for reading!

Teaching Depreciation with a #DBCFT Lurking

Shu-Yi Oei

I’m teaching depreciation in my Basic Federal Income Tax class this week. As I suspect is the case for most tax profs, our coverage of depreciation comes right after we wrap up discussion of expense taking in §§ 162 and 212 (and § 195) but before we get to § 165 losses.

Depreciation is literally my favorite topic in the entire universe to teach. I mean, if I was going to get a tattoo of a Code section on myself, it would literally be “26 U.S.C. § 168 (as amended).” No disrespect meant to 26 U.S.C. §§ 167, 179, 197 and friends. [Distraction: Here is a virtual tattoo generator. You, too, can practice getting your favorite Tax Code section inked on yourself.] I firmly believe that you can teach any number of core skills in tax class by teaching depreciation (e.g., statutory construction, policy choices, reading cross-references, political economy and legislative change, time value of money, etc.). Conversely, I also tend to think that if you can understand the depreciation statute in Basic Tax and explain it to your classmates, you can do pretty much anything in our legal profession.

Therefore, putting aside all of the reasons why cash-flow expensing may not have the effects that one might hope, I will be absolutely heartbroken if we actually end up with a cash-flow tax, because then what am I gonna talk about in tax class?

All of which brings me to today’s dilemma: Do I mention the ubiquitous #DBCFT in teaching depreciation this week? Or can I just pretend it’s not happening? If one does teach cash-flow expensing, when does one bring it up (i.e., in what order of coverage)? My inclination is to (1) explain the basics of how economic cost recovery over time works in theory; (2) talk briefly about the ACRS changes in 1981; (3) teach the Simon v. Commissioner cases (violin bows) to illustrate the policy tensions that arise once we move from true economic recovery and actual useful lives to ACRS and statutory recovery periods; (4) discuss #DBCFT as an alternative design approach, noting the possible benefits and downsides of that approach, noting that there’s some discussion in the ether right now re whether we should be doing this (and deemphasizing the border adjustment features); (5) introduce bonus depreciation concepts (§§ 168(k) and 179) as an illustration of how expensing has surreptitiously worked its way into the conversation in the guise of bonus depreciation circa financial crisis; and then (6) move right along to parsing the actual statutory elements of §§ 167 and 168 and understanding how it all stitches together.

This strikes me as a nice middle ground between (1) dorkin’ out and going #DBCFT full bore and totally losing the class, and (2) just ignoring the current debate. I’d be curious to know what other tax profs are doing with coverage here.

The Insurance Market Regulations in the Republicans’ Health Care Bill: Crippling Obamacare, or Passing a Hot Potato to State Governments?

By David Gamage

On Monday, the House Republicans finally revealed their draft bill to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act (#Obamacare or #ACA). The bill is titled the American Health Care Act, and commentators have been referring to it as either the #AHCA or #Trumpcare.

To assess the bill, it is helpful to think of it as consisting of four primary buckets:

  1. ending many of Obamacare’s tax provisions (read: large tax cuts for the very wealthy);
  2. phased-in cuts to Medicaid funding and scheduled devolution of Medicaid to the states (read: eroding the health safety-net program for the poor);
  3. transforming Obamacare’s other major health subsidies from being based mostly on income and health costs to being based more on age (read: the implications of this are actually less straightforward than what much of the commentary suggests, but that is a topic for another day); and
  4. other changes to Obamacare’s insurance market regulations (the subject of today’s blog post).

In this blog post, I will focus on the fourth bucket—the changes to Obamacare’s insurance market reforms other than the changes to the subsidies. Time permitting, I hope to write future blog posts on some of the other buckets.

What is most striking about the AHCA’s insurance market changes is how they keep the vast majority of Obamacare’s reforms in place. Right-wing groups have thus taken to calling the AHCA “#ObamacareLite”. Yet I consider this a misnomer. A more accurate label would be #ObamacareCrippled.

The AHCA’s changes do not really water down Obamacare, as the intended slur of “ObamacareLite” implies. Rather, the AHCA’s changes would likely cause Obamacare‘s framework for regulating the individual market to fall apart. If the AHCA bill were to be enacted in its current form, the result would likely be adverse-selection death spirals. The only real hope for saving the individual market would be for state governments to step up with new state-level regulations for supporting insurance markets within each state.

Continue reading “The Insurance Market Regulations in the Republicans’ Health Care Bill: Crippling Obamacare, or Passing a Hot Potato to State Governments?”

What Would Happen if the Johnson Amendment Were Repealed?

By Benjamin Leff

Donald Trump recently repeated his campaign promise to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment. The Johnson Amendment is that portion of Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code that forbids tax-exempt charities (including most churches) from “interven[ing] in … any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” Only Congress can change the Tax Code, and, as Daniel Hemel recently pointed out, congressional Republicans just re-introduced the Free Speech Fairness Act, a bill to permit some limited campaign-related speech by the leaders of 501(c)(3) organizations, including churches. I’ve written previously in support of this legislation as an “adequate solution” to provide a little extra wiggle room to protect the speech rights of charities without making significant changes to the way campaigns are currently financed. Hemel points out that the Free Speech Fairness Act doesn’t come close to totally destroying the Johnson Amendment, but is more like a “de minimis carveout.”

But, rather than talk about the relatively sensible Free Speech Fairness Act, I want to predict what would happen if Donald Trump actually succeeds in “totally destroying” the Johnson Amendment. In other words, what would happen if Congress simply repealed the portion of section 501(c)(3) quoted above?

Because a charity must be organized and operated primarily for charitable purposes (although the word used in the statute is “exclusively”[1]), and intervening in campaigns is not a charitable purpose, new charities could not be created for the purpose of engaging in campaign speech or making political contributions. But existing charities could divert a significant quantity of their funds to political campaigns if they so chose. The question of how much is hard to answer without new guidance, but it would be plausibly reasonable (though aggressive[2]) for a charity to make 49% of its expenditures in any year as campaign contributions, since that leaves 51% of its activities to satisfy the requirement that it is engaged “primarily” in activities that accomplish its exempt purposes.

How would that change the way campaigns are financed in the US? Well, if people could find charities willing to accept their contributions and then spend them on political contributions, taxpayers could transform political campaign contributions from nondeductible expenditures to tax-deductible charitable contributions. This would work for corporations as well as individuals. The charities would then have to limit their political spending to 49% of their overall spending. The charities best suited for this type of intermediation of campaign spending are large existing public charities.[3] For example, a university, like the one I work for, could choose to make political contributions on behalf of its donors, if it wanted.

If I were involved in fundraising at my university, I would immediately suggest that it create a fund called the Alumni for Kamala Harris for President Fund and the Alumni for Paul Ryan for President Fund (just a guess for 2020). For every tax-deductible contribution of $100 to the fund, $60 would go to the candidate or to an independent PAC that supports the candidate, and $40 would go towards scholarships at the University. There are some legal issues that the University would have to maneuver to make this program work, and there might be some blowback from stakeholders who were upset about the University getting involved in politics, but the program would not be illegal or impossible.   As discussed below, for donors in the 39.6% tax bracket, a tax-deductible contribution of $100 costs about the same to them as a non-tax-deductible contribution of $60, so why not send $40 to scholarships at your alma mater, if it’s free (or, technically, paid for by the government)?

In the 2016 presidential election, total spending by Hilary Clinton, Donald Trump, the Democratic and Republican parties, and all Super PACS was just over $2 billion. There are almost certainly enough public charities in this country that would be tempted to raise funds in the manner described above that all $2 billion could be funneled through them, making all campaign spending tax-deductible for the donor.

So, would that be good or bad? Obviously, it has very little to do with whether churches or their leaders can or cannot endorse candidates from the pulpit. The question is whether it would be good or bad policy to permit all campaign contributions — whether to candidates directly or to independent PACs or political parties — to be made on a tax-deductible basis. Generally, a tax deduction functions like a government subsidy. On the one hand, subsidizing all campaign spending doesn’t seem so bad. Campaigns are important for democracy; why shouldn’t the government subsidize them? Under current law, the playing field is made level by denying tax deduction to everyone who makes a political contribution or spends money to elect a candidate. At first glance, it seems like the playing field would be equally level if everyone gets a tax deduction for similar spending. As long as everyone is treated the same, it seems like a fair system.

But everyone is not treated the same when political campaign contributions and campaign spending is tax deductible. First of all, most political campaign contributions are made by very wealthy taxpayers, and so subsidizing political spending is a subsidy for the wealthiest taxpayers. For example, the conservative Koch brothers were reported to have planned to spend almost 900 million dollars in the 2016 presidential election. The liberal donor Thomas Steyer reportedly spent over 86 million dollars. Even if the government subsidized such spending in an equal way, say 10 cents for every dollar spent, this subsidy would be unfair. The government would magnify the Koch brothers’ voice by 90 million dollars, Steyer’s voice by 8.6 million dollars and most Americans voice by nothing or almost nothing, simply because they make small contributions. Most people would think that even a subsidy that was delivered proportional to spending would probably be bad policy.

But a tax deduction is not proportional to money spent, because our Tax Code is not proportional. Tax deductions (including the deduction for charitable contributions) treat wealthier donors better than less wealthy donors. First, deductions for charitable contributions are only available to taxpayers who “itemize” their deductions. Under the current income tax system, 70 percent of taxpayers do not itemize; instead they take the standard deduction or do not owe any tax. If you take the standard deduction, your taxes remain exactly the same whether you make charitable contributions or not. If campaign contributions could be deducted like charitable contributions, then non-itemizers would not have any tax benefit from making campaign contributions, while itemizers would. Itemizers are disproportionately found among the highest-income taxpayers.

Second, the amount of benefit one receives from a deduction is equal to one’s marginal tax rate. Since tax rates are progressive, that means that higher-income taxpayers get more benefit from deductions than lower-income taxpayers. For example, single taxpayers who have taxable income over $415,050 pay tax at a 39.06% rate on their income that exceeds that threshold. That means that the ability to deduct a political contribution is worth 39.06 cents for every dollar contributed. It is like a federal subsidy of almost 40 percent to wealthy political donors. For single taxpayers (who itemize) with taxable income under $9,275, the comparable subsidy is only 10 cents for every dollar contributed. That’s what tax scholars generally call an “upside down” subsidy.

So, not only is deductibility a government subsidy for political spending that would go disproportionately to wealthy taxpayers, it would go to them in disproportionate amounts, providing a greater subsidy per dollar contributed to wealthier taxpayers than to less wealthy ones. It’s hard to imagine that there are many people who would interpret that dramatic tilt of the playing field in favor of wealthy donors a good thing. Not even Trump could sell a policy like that with a straight face.

[1] See Treas. Reg. 1.501(c)(3)-1(c)(1)(“An organization will be regarded as operated exclusively for one or more exempt purposes only if it engages primarily in activities which accomplish one or more of such exempt purposes specified in section 501(c)(3).” emphasis added.)

[2] It’s an aggressive position at least in part because the second sentence of Treas. Reg. 1.501(c)(3)-1(c)(a) states, “An organization will not be so regarded if more than an insubstantial part of its activities is not in furtherance of an exempt purpose.” A lot of negatives in that sentence, but it appears to interpret the opposite of “primarily” as “an insubstantial amount.” The idea that 49% of an organization’s activities is “an insubstantial part” is an aggressive position, to say the least.

[3] This post has been modified from its original form. It was originally published proposing that donor-advised funds would be the simplest vehicle for making tax-deductible campaign contributions. But, thanks to post-publication feedback about the likelihood that such use of donor-advised funds would still be improper even after a full repeal of the Johnson Amendment, I have changed the proposed vehicle for tax-deductible campaign contributions to existing public charities that are not donor-advised fund hosts.

Newspapers and the Total Destruction of the Johnson Amendment

By Sam Brunson

Yesterday at the National Prayer Breakfast, Donald Trump promised to “get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment.”

In case you’re unfamiliar with the name “Johnson Amendment” (and I kind of hope you are—it’s a stupid name), that refers to the phrase in section 501(c)(3) that prohibits tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing candidates for office. It was proposed by Senator Lyndon Johnson in 1954, and inserted into the tax code with little fanfare and no legislative history.

There’s a lot that can (and, in fact, has) been said about Trump’s proposal, which follows up on a campaign promise he made, apparently repeatedly. I wouldn’t doubt if we return to it a few times here at Surly. But I just wanted to point out one potential consequence: Continue reading “Newspapers and the Total Destruction of the Johnson Amendment”

A New Approach to Presidential Tax Disclosure [Updated]

By: Sam Brunson

I’ve written a couple times about the various presidential candidates’ tax return disclosure and nondisclosure. Ultimately, I concluded that, unless Congress mandates disclosure, it’s not going to happen.

It turns out that I may have been wrong.

No, I don’t mean that the disclosure norm is going to reassert itself. I do mean, though, that requiring presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns may not require Congressional action after all.  Continue reading “A New Approach to Presidential Tax Disclosure [Updated]”

Trump’s Emoluments Tax Problem, Part Two

By: Sam Brunson

A week and a half ago, David entered the debate about Trump’s potential problem with the Emoluments Clause. He pointed out that, whether or not Trump’s business interests would run afoul of the Emoluments Clause, any divestiture of assets would probably trigger a significant tax liability. (We don’t know exactly what that would be, but given that many of his assets are real property interests, he has probably been depreciating them, so even if they haven’t appreciated in value, his adjusted basis is probably significantly lower than the fair market value of the assets. So when he sells them, the sale will probably trigger a significant taxable gain.)  Continue reading “Trump’s Emoluments Tax Problem, Part Two”

Revisiting Presidential Tax Return Disclosure

imjustabillBy Sam Brunson

At this point, it’s pretty clear that the norm of presidential candidates (and, presumably, presidents) releasing their tax returns to the public is dead and buried. Sure, it’s been on life support for some time now (I mean, a significant number of candidates in this race released weak disclosures at best), but Trump’s election without having ever released his returns clearly demonstrates that flouting this particular norm is not a bar to election.

On election day I wrote that Congress should require disclosure from presidential candidates (and, at this point, I would expand that to sitting presidents and vice-presidents), and provided a handful of ideas about how such legislation should look. But my previous post suffers from one significant weakness: I assumed that disclosure was a good thing, without explaining why. Continue reading “Revisiting Presidential Tax Return Disclosure”

Trump’s Emolument Tax Problem

By: David J. Herzig (photo from Vox.com)

When a businessperson who runs many active businesses runs and wins for President, clearly there would be many second order problems associated with inherent conflicts between running corporations and the country.  When President-elect Trump won the office, many of these conflicts have bubbled to the surface.

For example, to avoid a conflict of interest between benefiting one’s personal holdings and the Country’s best interests, assets of the President are placed in a blind trust.  As many have pointed out, this works only when the President does not know the nature of the holdings.  Putting existing businesses into a blind trust does not stop the President for knowing the underlying assets of the trust.  The conflict is not ameliorated by trust structure.  Nor, by the way, would it be fixed if President elect Trump divests but the family continues to own the assets.

For this post, I want to consider the current discussion related to the blind trust problem called emolument.  Many prior to the election probably have not heard much about the idea of emolument.  Larry Tribe and others believe that President elect Trump’s ownership of active business assets, even in a blind trust, would violate, Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 of the Constitution which prevents the President from accepting “presents” or “Emolument” from foreign states.  Others, like Andy Grewal, do not believe that mere ownership of assets triggers the Emolument Clause.

If the solution to the blind trust and Emolument Clause problems is a divesture of President elect Trump’s assets as many advocate, this would trigger (to borrow a catch phrase of President elect Trump’s) huuuuuuge tax problem.

Continue reading “Trump’s Emolument Tax Problem”

Donald Trump —> Mandatory Tax Return Disclosure

So it looks like Trump wasn’t lying when he said he wouldn’t release his tax returns—it’s Election Day,[fn1] and we still haven’t seen them.[fn2]

As has been endlessly pointed out, every Republican nominee for president since Ronald Reagan has released his tax returns, and most nominees since the 1970s have. Trump, in refusing to release his returns, is flouting a long-standing norm.

The thing is, though, he’s run a campaign largely based on flouting norms. And it’s not like the norm was aging well, anyway. Sure, there were candidates with exemplary releases. But there were candidates—on both sides of the aisle (I’ve got my eye on you, Bernie Sanders!) who did less than the bare minimum, releasing only one or two years’ worth of returns, and only really releasing their 1040s. (Several months ago, I graded candidates’ tax return disclosures here.)  Continue reading “Donald Trump —> Mandatory Tax Return Disclosure”