Democrats Aim to Limit Corporate Windfall From Trump Tax Cut
Top Democrats, eager to reverse a corporate windfall created by President Trump’s $1.5 trillion tax cut, are galvanizing around economic policies aimed at limiting the ability of companies to enrich shareholders.
The efforts, led by a group of populist presidential candidates and a Senate leader who was long a darling of Wall Street, are part of a growing push to stoke Main Street anger toward Wall Street ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
This week, Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat who has long allied with the financial firms that drive much of Manhattan’s economy, proposed limiting the ability of corporations to buy back shares of their stock and suggested possible changes in the tax treatment of investments.
“It’s a signal to corporate America that we have to go back to the old ways,” Mr. Schumer, the Senate’s minority leader, said in an interview. He added that the measures would join other proposals meant to force companies to return to an era when businesses did more to help their workers and their communities.
“The slavish devotion to shareholders has gotten out of control,” he said.
The more aggressive efforts to regulate corporate behavior are among many leftward moves for Democrats on economic issues. They include an embrace of new taxes on the wealthy and a growing consensus that all Americans should at least have the option — if not be forced — to obtain affordable government-run health insurance.
With Mr. Trump’s $1.5 trillion tax cut, which took effect last year, already changing corporate behavior, Democrats are looking for ways to prod businesses to share more of the winnings with workers.
The tax cuts delivered windfalls, sometimes in the billions of dollars, to corporations by lowering their income tax rate to 21 percent from a previous high of 35 percent. Administration officials promised that the reduction would fuel investment, economic growth and wage gains, and it did, at least modestly, in the first year.
But one of the most noticeable effects of the law was a surge in buybacks, which neared $800 billion for the 2018 fiscal year for companies in the S&P 500, according to analysts at Goldman Sachs. For 2019, those companies will buy back nearly $900 billion in shares, Goldman projects, which would be nearly a third of all corporate cash spending. That would be up from a quarter in the 2017 fiscal year, renewing progressives’ desire to increase corporate regulation.
“That you can see the Trump tax cuts go straight into buybacks is both startling and offensive, given the levels of inequality that exist and the investments our country needs to be making,” said Mike Konczal, a senior fellow at the liberal Roosevelt Institute who has pushed Democrats to take aim at buybacks and pursue other ways to force companies to invest more in workers.
“Workers are still struggling, even with unemployment below 4 percent, to get significant wage gains,” Mr. Konczal said, “and people are looking at corporate governance as a reason.”
Perhaps no party leader illustrates the embrace of additional corporate regulation better than Mr. Schumer, who famously declared in 2008 that “Wall Street and Main Street are tied together.”
In the interview, Mr. Schumer said the recent buyback flurry had been a “turning point” in Democrats’ attitudes toward corporate America. “We’re a capitalist country, let’s face it,” he said. “Capitalism needs a lot of mending.”
Mr. Schumer previewed the policy battles in an op-ed published Sunday night by The New York Times, which he wrote with Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont and a likely candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
The piece, which criticized the tax law, proposed prohibiting a public company from buying back shares “unless it invests in workers and communities first, including things like paying all workers at least $15 an hour, providing seven days of paid sick leave, and offering decent pensions and more reliable health benefits.”
The senators also suggested that they would consider other efforts to force companies to invest more in workers, including changing tax rates on dividends.
While the efforts are unlikely to go anywhere in a divided Congress, they have already sparked a public conversation about the role of corporations in helping workers and the economy.
The Schumer-Sanders proposal drew a rebuke from Lloyd Blankfein, the former head of Goldman Sachs, who said in a tweet that money used to buy back stock “doesn’t vanish, it gets reinvested in higher growth businesses that boost the economy and jobs.”
Mr. Sanders quickly responded on Twitter that Mr. Blankfein was correct that the money “doesn’t vanish” — but instead “increases the wealth of billionaires” like Mr. Blankfein.
Republicans, who focused throughout the first two years of the Trump administration on reducing tax rates and federal regulations on business, have slammed the buyback proposals as “socialism.”
“I just think it’s dead wrong,” said Larry Kudlow, the chairman of Mr. Trump’s National Economic Council, in an interview. “Why shouldn’t shareholders be rewarded? Instead of being stuck in a corporate lockbox, why not free up the money so that companies can reinvest?”
Mr. Kudlow cautioned that not all buybacks proved to be successful moves for companies. “I’d rather have them make direct investments in plants or structures,” he said, “but sometimes it may be more efficient to put money in the hands of investors and let them decide.”
Many top Democrats, including several presidential contenders, have pushed for additional measures to curb corporate behavior. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who is running for president, proposed legislation last year that would require large publicly traded corporations to obtain a corporate charter from the government. That charter would direct companies to consider workers and other stakeholder groups, and not just shareholders, in their decisions.
Ms. Warren also questioned the Federal Reserve about allowing big banks to combine, after an announcement on Thursday that the regional banking powerhouses BB&T and SunTrust are planning a $66 billion merger, subject to Fed approval.
In a letter to the Fed’s chairman, Jerome H. Powell, Ms. Warren said the central bank’s “record of summarily approving mergers raises doubts about whether it will serve as a meaningful check on this consolidation that creates a new too big to fail bank and has the potential to hurt consumers.”