If you followed the saga of the route to passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, you already know that a last-minute maneuver by Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema torpedoed a provision in the Senate compromise bill that would have finally closed the so-called “carried interest loophole.” That’s where savvy real-estate financiers and managers of private partnerships such as hedge funds and private equity deals are able to cut their income taxes as much as 40 percent by masquerading their compensation as a capital gain that enjoys much lower income tax rates.
Public pension funds, public employees and their associations need to put a stop to this, and they have both the moral high ground and the clout to do so. It’s high time for political and financial blowback. The PR firms orchestrating this nonsense will just keep it up until their profiteering clients get called out.
The reality is that if the fund managers had to pay standard tax rates on their income, it would have zero impact on pension systems’ returns. What are the managers going to do? Cook up fewer deals? Pull up stakes and move to a tax haven? Demand even higher fees on top of their already cushy income? They can huff and puff all they want, but pensioners would lose nothing if the loophole were plugged.
In the name of preserving carefully negotiated legislation, Senate Democrats’ leaders united their caucus to vote down amendments that would have added the party’s Medicare expansion plan and expanded child tax credit into the final spending bill now moving through Congress.
That unity, though, was not universally enforced: soon after those votes, seven Democratic senators joined with Republicans to cast a pivotal vote shielding their private equity donors from a new corporate minimum tax.
The seven Democrats who joined the GOP to give private equity firms that $35 billion gift were: Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly of Arizona, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff of Georgia, Jacky Rosen and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire.
Five of the seven Democrats are among the Senate’s top recipients of campaign donations from private equity donors, according to data from OpenSecrets. The group collectively raked in more than $1.4 million of campaign cash from the private equity industry, which has become a huge source of capital for the fossil fuel conglomerates that are creating the climate crisis.
The contrast between voting to protect private equity donors and voting against programs for the working class effectively screamed the quiet part out loud about whom senators typically respond to — and whom they don’t.
In this case, Democratic and Republican senators responded to the demands of an industry that has not only spent more than a quarter billion dollars on the last two federal elections, but that also employs an army of government-officials-turned-lobbyists to influence lawmakers in Washington. The world’s largest private equity firm is headed by one of the Republican Party’s largest donors, and now employs the son-in-law of Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer as a lobbyist.
Governments raise most of their money by taxing wages, but President Joe Biden has his eyes fixed on the rich, big business and Wall Street. He proposes to fund his $2.7trn infrastructure plan in part by raising the corporate-tax rate from 21% to 28%. And to help pay for more spending on child care and support for parents, he wants to roughly double the top rate of federal tax on capital gains and dividends. For Americans earning more than $1m per year, he would bring levies on capital income into line with the top rate on wage income, which he wants to put up from 37% to 39.6%. That is about double the rate that is currently levied on rich investors, who are only a small fraction of the population but a large proportion of shareholders.
Tax capital lightly and it pays to disguise wages as capital income — a particularly lucrative pastime for the rich. One problem is the “carried interest” loophole. It lets private-equity and hedge-fund managers class their fees as capital gains rather than income. Another issue is the explosive growth in “pass through” firms, for example partnerships, which accounted for more than half of American business income by 2011, up from about a fifth in 1980.