If you want to know how one of Wall Street’s biggest players managed to keep a massive and controversial loophole in the GOP tax bill, just follow the money.
The $2.5 trillion private equity business, comprised of Wall Street behemoths Blackstone Group (NYSE:BX), Carlyle Group (NASDAQ:CG) and KKR & Co. (NYSE:KKR), funneled massive amounts of campaign cash into the coffers of Republican leaders in the House and the Senate as these same lawmakers voted for a tax bill that preserves the so-called carried interest loophole, campaign contribution documents reviewed by FOX Business show.
In 2017 alone, members of the three private equity firms gave a combined $1.31 million to GOP lawmakers in the House and the Senate, compared to just $438,000 to Democrats, documents show.
Public policy groups and some lawmakers have called for eliminating the carried interest deduction as a form of welfare for the rich, since private equity companies and their investors so heavily benefit from the loophole that allows for profits on their holdings to be taxed at a lower rate than ordinary income. During the 2016 presidential campaign, then-candidate Trump said he would end the deduction for everybody during his populist push to win the White House while noting that average families pay a higher income tax rate than executives from this industry.
But the private equity business has been successfully fighting to retain the loophole in the tax code for years. Through a combination of lobbying key Congressional leaders, and it appears, targeted campaign contributions to those same leaders, the industry was able to convince the Trump administration and the GOP Congress not to touch its sacred cow yet again in the current tax bill, a move that will save these firms around $2 billion a year.
"People who benefit from carried interest are not suburban families who are living paycheck to paycheck. They aren't on Medicaid,” said Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “This loophole protects an industry whose participants contribute a lot of money to campaigns and political efforts in general, and people will be outraged when it becomes a campaign issue.”
The private equity industry counters that the loophole and the savings it creates allow companies like Blackstone to create jobs. Private equity funds typically buy up public companies, turn them private in order to revamp businesses and sell them years later at a profit often to public shareholders. The carried interest deduction in the tax bill allows their investors’ profits to be taxed at a lower capital gains rate as opposed to the higher income tax rate of 37% as long as the private equity firms hold their investment for three years, as they typically do.
“Last year alone, the private equity industry invested over $640 billion in the U.S. economy, employing more than 11 million Americans in all 50 states and in every congressional district,” said Laura Christof, spokeswoman for the American Investment Council, a lobbying group representing private equity firms. “We worked with as many lawmakers as possible to encourage them to support long-term business investment as part of a tax reform package that would lead to economic growth. This tax bill is not perfect for any one industry, including ours, but it will support the kind of long-term investing that industries like private equity, real estate, and venture capital bring to our economy.”
Making the loophole’s inclusion in the tax bill even more controversial is the closing of other loopholes and deductions, such as the deduction for state and local taxes. Ending that deduction could harm even middle-class taxpayers in some states like New York, New Jersey and California who might pay an effective tax rate that is higher than a private equity investor. And even on Wall Street, which favors lower taxes on business, the carried interest loophole is considered a controversial one. For example, bankers and investors who work at Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS) and perform some as private equity executives do not benefit from a similar loophole. These same executives say private equity firms would still be able to take risk on companies without the loophole, and the profits generated would still be enormous.
The reason for the loophole’s survival, Wall Street executives say, comes down to money and the power of the private equity industry in Washington, where it targets key lawmakers for campaign contributions and constantly lobbies the White House on maintaining the favorable tax treatment as good for the economy, even if the data is decidedly mixed.
For example, most of the big private equity firms, like Blackstone, are located in New York or, in the case of Carlyle, Washington, D.C. But Blackstone was so interested in the outcome of the 2014 Kentucky Senate race that it plowed $217,000 into Mitch McConnell’s campaign coffers in order to help the GOP Senate Majority leader keep his seat. Since his re-election campaign, they've continued to be key allies of McConnell with Blackstone employees so far contributing a grand total of $212,000 in 2017, according to data from the Federal Election Commission.
That means Blackstone has been a top contributor to McConnell for the past two election cycles, at a time when the Senate Republican leader was among the chief architects of the GOP tax bill. A spokesman for McConnell declined to comment, as did a spokeswoman for Blackstone.
But McConnell isn’t the only Republican lawmaker from outside of New York to rake in campaign cash from the largely East Coast-based private equity business. Paul Ryan, the GOP House Speaker from a district in Wisconsin, received $68,000 from Blackstone and its executives in 2017 (Ryan’s second-largest contributor so far this year) and $36,000 from Carlyle Group and its executives, documents show.
It’s unclear if Ryan will seek re-election in 2018 when his term ends, but the district trends heavily Republican and he is expected to retain the seat if he does run. A spokesman for Ryan had no comment, and a spokeswoman for Carlyle had no comment.
Other big beneficiaries of private equity campaign cash include GOP Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee who received $60,000 this year alone from Blackstone, and GOP House Ways and Means Committee chief Kevin Brady from Texas, who received $25,000 from executives at KKR this year alone. A KKR spokeswoman didn’t return calls for comment.
The White House had no comment on the matter, but earlier on Wednesday, Trump’s National Economic Council Chairman Gary Cohn blamed Congress’s relationship with big private equity firms and their lobbyists for the carried interest loophole’s survival in the final tax bill, stating that the administration tried to get the loophole removed “25 times.”
“The reality of this town is that this constituency has a very large presence in the House and Senate,” Cohn said.
However, others close to the tax bill process say the White House didn’t make ending the loophole a priority. They point to President Trump’s close relationship with Blackstone chief Steve Schwarzman, a key outside economic adviser, for the administration’s poor effort in the matter. A spokeswoman for Cohn had no comment.