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Retailers should view tax policy as a whole

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Many people in the retail sector are hailing the Republican-led drive in Congress to reform the nation’s tax code. Several industry groups were quick to praise the House of Representatives’ passage — in a 227 to 205 vote along party lines earlier this month — of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017.

“We are thankful the House moved swiftly to pass this important legislation that will give America’s retailers and consumers a break,” said Jennifer Safavian, executive vice president of government affairs at the Retail Industry Leaders Association. “America’s current tax code is in dire need of an update. Retailers pay one of the nation’s highest effective corporate tax rates, which is why we are pleased to see the corporate tax rate permanently reduced to 20%.”

On the same day that the House passed the bill, the Senate finance committee — with the 14 Republicans on the panel in favor and the 12 Democrats opposed — advanced its version of tax reform legislation. The bill differs from the measure passed by the House in some important respects, including a one-year delay in implementation of the reduction in the corporate tax rate and elimination of the mandate requiring individuals to purchase health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

“With this pro-growth measure now approved by committee, we urge senators to spend the Thanksgiving break building consensus on how to pass tax reform and set aside any differences that might keep this vitally important goal from becoming reality,” Matthew Shay, chief executive officer of the National Retail Federation, said immediately after the vote. “Tax reform is the key to increased prosperity that small businesses, large employers and middle-class workers have all been waiting for for more than a generation. This is about jobs, wages and America’s future.”

While it’s perfectly understandable why retail executives would welcome a reduction in the corporate tax rate that would bring the U.S. into closer alignment with other industrialized countries (most executives also favor the push to reduce and simplify the regulatory burden companies face), other aspects of the tax reform measures under consideration in Congress should give them pause. The Senate bill, for instance, would raise taxes for many individuals and families. A report by Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation concluded that, if enacted, it would cause the tax burden for everyone making less than $75,000 a year to increase.

That finding should trouble mass market retailers, the success of whose business model depends on widespread prosperity. Sales gains, especially on the comparable-store level, have been hard to come by and harder to sustain in recent years. Among the reasons for that are income stagnation and the widening gap between the top and bottom tiers of society. Any changes in tax policy that might exacerbate those problems should be carefully considered before they are enacted.

In arguing for tax reform, House Ways and Means Committee chairman Kevin Brady (R., Texas) has asserted that people analyzing the legislation and its impact should consider the bill as a whole, not cherry-pick individual elements. That’s good advice for the nation’s retailers, who need to look beyond the very real benefits that a reduction in the corporate tax rate would bring, and work to ensure that whatever comes out of Congress will, in its totality, be beneficial for them and the consumers they serve.


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