Congress Covered Up Illegal Tax Break for Banks

Congress tried to cover up the fact that the Treasury department illegally amended the tax laws to give big banks a write-off when they use bailout money to buy competitors.

As today’s Washington Post reveals:

Corporate tax lawyers quickly realized the enormous implications of the document: Administration officials had just given American banks a windfall of as much as $140 billion.

The sweeping change to two decades of tax policy escaped the notice of lawmakers for several days, as they remained consumed with the controversial bailout bill. When they found out, some legislators were furious. Some congressional staff members have privately concluded that the notice was illegal. But they have worried that saying so publicly could unravel several recent bank mergers made possible by the change and send the economy into an even deeper tailspin.

“Did the Treasury Department have the authority to do this? I think almost every tax expert would agree that the answer is no,” said George K. Yin, the former chief of staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation, the nonpartisan congressional authority on taxes. “They basically repealed a 22-year-old law that Congress passed as a backdoor way of providing aid to banks.”

***

More than a dozen tax lawyers interviewed for this story — including several representing banks that stand to reap billions from the change — said the Treasury had no authority to issue the notice.

***

But lawmakers worried about discussing their concerns publicly. The staff of Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Finance Committee, had asked that the entire conference call be kept secret, according to a person with knowledge of the call.

“We’re all nervous about saying that this was illegal because of our fears about the marketplace,” said one congressional aide, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. “To the extent we want to try to publicly stop this, we’re going to be gumming up some important deals.”

***

Some legal experts said these under-the-radar objections mirror the objections to the congressional resolution authorizing the war in Iraq.

“It’s just like after September 11. Back then no one wanted to be seen as not patriotic, and now no one wants to be seen as not doing all they can to save the financial system,” said Lee A. Sheppard, a tax attorney who is a contributing editor at the trade publication Tax Analysts. “We’re left now with congressional Democrats that have spines like overcooked spaghetti. So who is going to stop the Treasury secretary from doing whatever he wants?”

This is a good question, especially since “The Federal Reserve is refusing to identify the recipients of almost $2 trillion of emergency loans from American taxpayers or the troubled assets the central bank is accepting as collateral“, but Congress doesn’t appear to be lifting a finger to force disclosure.

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