Tax reform legislation widely known as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) ( P.L. 115-97) was signed into law on December 22, 2017. The TCJA brought forth the most sweeping overhaul of the U.S. tax code in over 30 years. However, widespread efforts to implement the TCJA amidst ongoing tax-related global developments continue to this day. Now, two years following its enactment, Treasury, the IRS, and the tax community remain steadfast in working toward understanding and communicating congressional intent under the new law.
The Tax Council Policy Institute (TCPI), a nonprofit, non-partisan public policy research and educational organization, will devote its 21st Annual Tax Policy & Practice Symposium to reviewing the current state of U.S. tax law and how it may continue to evolve, when it presents “Hindsight is 2020: What the TCJA and Global Developments Tell us About the Future of Tax” (February 13-14, 2020).
Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting sat down recently with two principal organizers of this year’s TCPI Symposium to preview some of the issues that will be discussed. Lynda K. Walker, Esq., is executive director and general counsel of TCPI. John Gimigliano is principal-in-charge of legislative and regulatory services in the Washington National Tax practice of KPMG LLP and former senior tax counsel for the House Ways and Means Committee. KPMG is program manager for the 2020 TCPI Symposium.
Wolters Kluwer: As the name of this year’s symposium reflects, hindsight is 20/20. Are there any particular policy choices made two years ago under the TCJA that standout now as being either well-matched or less than ideal for the functionality of the current U.S. tax system as it relates to domestic as well as multinational business?
Lynda K. Walker: Tax law is constantly evolving, and it seems now more rapidly than ever. Congress and the business community worked for years to advance some of the concepts in the TCJA, particularly the necessity of lower rates for global competitiveness. Enactment of the major overhaul of the business tax system within that legislation was met with much enthusiasm, but it is not the end of the challenge. Promulgation of regulations—an ongoing process—as well as implementation of those rules and the administration of them are major areas of focus for tax executives and will be covered extensively at our upcoming conference. We have designed this symposium’s program to examine how well the tax system is working to meet the goals that Congress was looking to achieve given the passage of time and the practical application of the law. The experts speaking at the symposium are from various fields and bring varying perspectives. We hope to provide our attendees with the gamut of expert thought on the issues of current interest. The program also strives to bring some new understanding to both external and internal pressures on our tax system(s) in the U.S. and globally, not only currently but prospectively.
John Gimigliano: In some ways it is almost too early to know, being only one complete tax filing season in, but that is part of what we are trying to explore by bringing together the experts at the symposium. Although the TCJA was a partisan piece of legislation and there were people that claimed it did or did not do certain things, hopefully we can now put that aside and evaluate what the law does and does not do, and maybe we now have enough experience with it to make those determinations.
Wolters Kluwer: As you mentioned, internal and external pressures on the federal tax system will be examined during the symposium. What are some examples of internal and external forces that affect tax policy generally?
John Gimigliano: You can look at budgetary and political pressures as key internal forces that affect all tax policy. As I said, the TCJA was a Republican bill, and Democrats have made it pretty clear that they have issues with not only how it was enacted but also the substance of the bill. We saw these internal, political pressures manifest especially because we had an election since the enactment of the TCJA, and the House has gone from Republican to Democratic-controlled. That is not to suggest cause and effect, but it does change the potential for changes to the system that was enacted in December of 2017. And, of course there is another big election looming that could change that political calculus again. As for external pressures, the most notable one is the work being done at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to address the digital economy and the opportunity to change international tax rules pretty dramatically in a way that was not envisioned when the TCJA was negotiated, drafted, and enacted. Additionally, there are external trade pressures at work on the tax system. There has always been a fine line between tax and trade policy, and if we have dramatic changes in trade policy, it could certainly trickle over to the tax side.
Lynda K. Walker: Currently, we are seeing a recognition of the correlation between tax and trade policy that is vastly different from a few years ago. Among our peers in the tax policy community, we now talk about tax and trade as related in a way that seems to have more common acceptance than in the past. There is a convergence of these other global issues on tax policy in a very distinguishable way that is a big potential external pressure.
Wolters Kluwer: Can you touch upon the importance of businesses staying informed of the direction the OECD will go with regard to reforms to international tax standards?
Lynda K. Walker: It is really important that businesses pay very close attention to what is going on in the OECD, the European Union (EU), and other economic blocks around the world, perhaps now more than ever. During the time we were debating tax reform in this country, other countries began to move in their efforts to broaden their tax bases. We were occupied with tax reform, and their tax proposals and efforts were moving forward. Moreover, tax executives need certainty—and the whole debate and movement toward multilateral agreements from bilateral and unilateral jurisdictional action could be a forbearer to another regime in global taxation. It is important that taxpayers be part of the dialogue and that business has a seat at the table with government as matters that could have a sweeping impact on where and how business is conducted are discussed and determined.
Wolters Kluwer: As TCPI materials noted, the symposium is expected to highlight the “real world” effects of the TCJA and how it has changed thinking about global investment. What might a preview of this discussion include?
John Gimigliano: Now stepping away from the theoretical of enactment and all the things the TCJA may or may not do, it is important to examine what it means now to be a tax professional. With two years of experience with the TCJA, what does it really do, and how does it change the decisions that tax directors have to make as to whether, when, or where to buy equipment or to develop intellectual property? Those are the kind of questions we are hoping to address with this real world application of our experience with the TCJA.
Wolters Kluwer: Generally, have the regulations promulgated since passage of the TCJA succeeded in clarifying complex provisions of the statute?
Lynda K. Walker: The TCJA is so broad and impacts so much of the tax code, it really does seem like we are relying heavily on regulations, which we always do in the tax world, but we still need a lot more explanation on some of the TCJA provisions. I am sure it has been a challenge for the IRS, and we are very happy that we will have Michael J. Desmond, IRS chief counsel, with us for this symposium to provide some insight into how the IRS has proceeded and plans to continue to move forward with guidance.
John Gimigliano: This is the challenge of being in the executive branch and getting a piece of legislation handed to you and trying to make it work. As a former tax writer, it is often easier to write these provisions in the abstract, but it is so much more challenging in various ways to make sure that it works for taxpayers and that it is administrable by the IRS. You do not want to put the IRS in a position to fail with a provision that ultimately is impossible to administer. These are the challenges that the IRS has, and so far, by all accounts, both Treasury and the IRS have done a pretty good job. But there’s still so much left to do.
Wolters Kluwer: As for any particular provisions, especially those with final regulations, that may still carry uncertainty for taxpayers and practitioners, what might generally be the way to approach the conundrum?
John Gimigliano: I could point to many of the TCJA regulations that are finalized and still say that there are unanswered questions and that people are going to have to make judgment calls. That has always been the case with tax; there are always judgment calls to be made. There is no statute and no regulation that can ever anticipate every fact pattern. So, people will do their best to analyze the rules and examples provided but will ultimately have to make judgment calls.
Wolters Kluwer: How should U.S. businesses prepare for potential changes in tax policy after the elections?
Lynda K. Walker: Businesses should stay engaged in the process with policy makers and groups like TCPI. Tax executives should engage in the discussion, and never think tax law is static. Taxpayers should be prepared for government to revisit the tax code as fiscal and economic needs change, and be prepared to navigate those waters as they shift.
Wolters Kluwer: Can the current corporate tax rate really be considered “permanent” just because it was enacted as such under the TCJA, or is it a relatively impermanent feature of the tax code just like others, largely dependent upon which Party has the White House and majority in Congress?
Lynda K. Walker: It is definitely fair to say that there will be pressure put on the rate as well as the tax code in general, because both Parties have objectives that require money. I do not know that anyone believes anything in the tax code is absolutely written in stone. That is part of the challenge for business in that they need some level of certainty to make long-term business and investment decisions, and to have major changes on an ongoing basis does not provide that certainty.
John Gimigliano: Permanence is an illusion; nothing is permanent. And even temporary policy is somewhat misleading. Take for example the R&D tax credit that was finally made permanent after being considered temporary tax policy for over 30 years. These are all relative terms.
Wolters Kluwer: What are you hoping the symposium accomplishes?
Lynda K. Walker: We hope that this program accomplishes our mission, which is to bring about a stronger and better understanding of federal tax policies and how they impact business and the economy as a whole. We hope this brings some careful study to the forefront through active evaluation and open discussion so that people leave more engaged and perhaps more aware. In our programs, our goal is always to have as inclusive a dialogue as possible by engaging all the critical stakeholders, including government, business, and academia. We work diligently to elevate the discourse on issues where we all might not have exactly the same frame of reference but hopefully the same goal, which is a thriving economy where business can operate under fair and transparent tax laws.
John Gimigliano: I hope we can advance taxpayers’ and practitioners’ understanding of the TCJA. We have all had so many questions since its enactment in late 2017. Now with a little bit of time, hopefully by gathering these experts together and in keeping with TCPI’s mission, it will advance everyone’s understanding of the law—where it is working, where it is not, and what changes are likely to come.
For more information on the 2020 TCPI Symposium, go to https://www.tcpi.org/event/21st-annual-tax-policy-and-practice-symposium/.