Tax reform decoded: What you need to know

Mnuchin: Apple hoards cash because of our tax code
Mnuchin: Apple hoards cash because of our tax code

Republicans and the White House may have a hard time muscling through a full tax code overhaul this year. But there will be plenty of debates and mudslinging over tax reform while they try.

And all those rhetorical talkfests will be peppered with tax and legislative jargon. Lots of it.

So here's a cheat sheet on what some key terms mean:

Revenue neutral: "How much will that tax plan cost?" is just another way of asking whether the overall plan will raise less revenue than the current tax code, more revenue or the same amount.

If it would raise the same amount, the proposal is said to be "revenue neutral."

If a plan is estimated to raise more revenue, it will be said to reduce deficits. If it would raise less than the current code, it would increase deficits.

Right now, Republicans can't even agree on whether tax reform should be revenue neutral.

It's an important question because if they decide it should be, lawmakers must find ways to make up the revenue losses that may occur from cutting rates, increasing some tax breaks and repealing certain taxes altogether.

In other words, they must agree to "pay for" any measures that would reduce revenue.

Pay-fors or offsets: So-called "pay-fors" or offsets for tax reform typically include eliminating tax breaks or reducing their value, closing tax loopholes and raising taxes or fees in some areas. Coming up with pay-fors is where tax reform gets hard because behind every tax break and loophole is a powerful interest group.

Related: Why tax reform and tax cuts are not the same thing

Economic growth can also raise more revenue. But there is debate over how much Congress should count on estimates of assumed growth as a "pay for" since so many factors other than tax cuts can influence growth. The concern: if growth doesn't materialize, a tax proposal would run up the country's debt.

Dynamic scoring: There are different ways to estimate the cost of tax reform. Republicans want to use so-called dynamic scoring as the preferred method.

Unlike conventional scoring, dynamic scoring assumes tax cuts will generate economic growth. That assumed growth, in turn, will generate more estimated revenue. And that additional projected revenue can make a tax plan look less costly.

Distribution: This is just a fancy term to indicate how the tax bills of people at different income levels will be affected by a given tax reform proposal.

It's also a way to assess the "Who wins and who loses?" question -- that is, who will end up paying less in taxes under the proposed changes and who will end up paying more.

Pass-throughs: The vast majority of businesses in the United States aren't corporations. They're so-called pass-through entities that have chosen not to structure themselves as corporations for tax purposes. These businesses run the gamut from mom-and-pop shops to big law firms to investment partnerships.

A pass-through business isn't taxed as a corporation. Instead it passes the profits it generates through to the shareholders and partners of the business. They then report those profits and pay taxes on them on their individual tax returns.

Corporations, by contrast, are taxable entities and they file their taxes under the corporate tax code.

Worldwide system vs. territorial system: Today the United States has a worldwide tax system. That means that U.S. companies must pay U.S. tax on all their profits, regardless of where in the world those profits are earned.

But many other countries don't tax their domestically based companies on the earnings they make offshore.

Republicans want to switch to a territorial system for businesses. That would mean U.S. companies would only owe U.S. tax on what they earn in the United States.

The profits they make abroad would no longer be subject to U.S. tax, just to whatever tax is imposed by the government of the country where the money was made.

Related: 6 reasons tax reform may not happen this year

Deemed repatriation: U.S. multinationals can defer paying U.S. tax on any profits they earn abroad until they repatriate it, meaning bring it back to U.S. soil.

A lot of companies have built quite a cash stash offshore. If they officially brought it home, they would owe a 35% tax rate on it, minus whatever tax they already paid on their foreign profits to other governments.

To help raise quick revenue to pay for other parts of tax reform, there's been talk of deemed repatriation. That is, applying a one-time repatriation tax -- set at a lower rate than 35% -- on a company's overseas profits whether they choose to actually bring the money home or not.

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