Why do firms lobby? A 22,000 percent return.

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The next time an industry asks Congress for a bailout, remember this number:

22,000 percent.

That's the return that that a new study says US corporations made off their lobbying efforts in 2003 and 2004 after convincing lawmakers to let them bring home their overseas earnings at a low tax rate. The benefits of the American Jobs Creation Act and related provisions were stunning – for the corporations.

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Spend $1, make $220

For every $1 they spent on lobbying for the tax break, corporations reaped a $220 benefit on their US income taxes, according to three University of Kansas professors. Some 840 firms – including several of today's bailout babies, including Citigroup, JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley, and Merrill Lynch – repatriated more than $312 billion at a maximum tax rate of 5.25 percent.

Companies that spent more than $1 million on tax lobbying did even better: a 24,300 percent return, the researchers found. For example: In its disclosure statements, drugmaker Eli Lilly & Co. acknowledged spending $8.52 million in 2003 and 2004 to lobby for the tax break. It reaped more than $2 billion in return.

"It's a sign when a corporation's most profitable enterprise is lobbying," said Stephen Mazza, a law professor at the University of Kansas and coauthor of the study with colleagues Raquel Meyer Alexander and Susan Scholz.

That return sounds huge, but actually nobody knows if it's the norm or not because it's usually impossible to estimate the direct benefit of lobbying, Mr. Mazza said. The American Jobs Creation Act was an exception. If anything, the estimated return is conservative, he added, because it included all the tax-related lobbying corporations did during that period, not just what they spent on the 2004 act.

The consequences

Of course, the US reaped some benefits, too, from all that money that otherwise would have been taxed somewhere else. But here's the rub.

That onetime benefit in 2004 had a perverse effect, Mr. Mazza said. The corporations that had done the right thing and had their earnings taxed at normal US rates suddenly saw other companies rewarded for their more aggressive tax-saving strategies. So what did those corporations do?

They pushed more of their earnings offshore, according to recent research, Mazza said. And they lobbied – unsuccessfully – for another repatriation tax break in this year's stimulus package.

The federal government has rightfully intervened in the private sector to avert a financial collapse and devastating deflation. That said, the American Jobs Creation Act is a cautionary tale of what can go wrong when Washington intervenes.

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