Above: President Joe Biden signs the Inflation Reduction Act into law.
“I’m about to sign the Inflation Reduction Act into law, one of the most significant laws in our history. Let me say from the start: With this law, the American people won and the special interests lost. The American people won and the special interests lost.”
Well, not every special interest lost.
You will note who was not present at the signing ceremony: Arizona’s prima donna Democratic diva Kyrsten Sinema, who saw to it that her “special interest,” the private equity hedge funds, were protected before agreeing to vote for the Inflation Reduction Act.
Oh, don’t think that I’ve forgotten about you, princess. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema took Wall Street money while killing tax on wealthy investors:
U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, the Arizona Democrat who single-handedly thwarted her party’s longtime goal of raising taxes on wealthy investors, received nearly $1 million over the past year from private equity professionals, hedge fund managers and venture capitalists whose taxes would have increased under the plan.
For years, Democrats have promised to raise taxes on such investors, who pay a significantly lower rate on their earnings than ordinary workers. But just as they closed in on that goal last week, Sinema forced a series of changes to her party’s $740 billion election-year spending package, eliminating a proposed “carried interest” tax increase on private equity earnings while securing a $35 billion exemption that will spare much of the industry from a separate tax increase other huge corporations now have to pay.
The bill, with Sinema’s alterations intact, was given final approval by Congress on Friday and is expected to be signed by President Joe Biden next week.
Sinema has long aligned herself with the interests of private equity, hedge funds and venture capital, helping her net at least $1.5 million in campaign contributions since she was elected to the House a decade ago. But the $983,000 she has collected since last summer more than doubled what the industry donated to her during all of her preceding years in Congress combined, according to an Associated Press review of campaign finance disclosures.
The donations, which make Sinema one of the industry’s top beneficiaries in Congress, serve a reminder of the way that high-power lobbying campaigns can have dramatic implications for the way legislation is crafted, particularly in the evenly divided Senate where there are no Democratic votes to spare. They also highlight a degree of political risk for Sinema, whose unapologetic defense of the industry’s favorable tax treatment is viewed by many in her party as indefensible.
“From their vantage point, it’s a million dollars very well spent,” said Dean Baker, a senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a liberal-leaning think tank. “It’s pretty rare you see this direct of a return on your investment. So, I guess I would congratulate them.”
Sinema’s office declined to make her available for an interview [per usual, “Silent Sinema” hides for the media]. Hannah Hurley, a Sinema spokesperson, acknowledged the senator shares some of the industry’s views on taxation, but rebuffed any suggestion that the donations influenced her thinking.
“Senator Sinema makes every decision based on one criteria: what’s best for Arizona,” Hurley said in a statement. “She has been clear and consistent for over a year that she will only support tax reforms and revenue options that support Arizona’s economic growth and competitiveness.”
Note to Hannah Hurley: it is not worth losing your soul for this woman. No one believes a word of what you say.
The American Investment Council, a trade group that lobbies on behalf of private equity, also defended their push to defeat the tax provisions.
“Our team worked to ensure that members of Congress from both sides of the aisle understand how private equity directly employs workers and supports small businesses throughout their communities,” Drew Maloney, the organization’s CEO and president, said in a statement.
As Farhad Manjoo at the New York Times explains, Private Equity Doesn’t Want You to Read This (excerpt):
This column is about the excesses of the private equity investment industry. It delves into the minutiae of the tax code, corporate structure and certain abstruse practices of financial engineering. There will be jargon: carried interest, leveraged buyout, joint liability. I am aware that none of this is anyone’s favorite thing to be discussing on a summer’s day.
But private equity is counting on your lack of interest; the seeming impenetrability of its practices has been called one of its “superpowers,” among the reasons the trillion-dollar industry keeps getting away with it.
With what? An accelerating, behind-the-scenes desiccation of the American economy. Democrats in the Senate were poised to pass a rule that might slightly clip the industry’s wings — a change to the tax code that would force partners in private equity firms, hedge fund managers and venture capitalists to pay a fairer share of taxes on the money they make.
But private equity has wangled out of proposed regulation before, and it’s done so again. Senate Democrats have agreed to drop the measure from their climate legislation to win the support of Senator Kyrsten Sinema, the Arizona Democrat who has often frustrated her party’s agenda and has expressed opposition to raising taxes on the wealthy.
I can’t fathom what her reluctance might be. One of private equity’s main plays is the leveraged buyout, which involves borrowing huge sums of money to gobble up companies in the hopes of restructuring them and one day selling them for a gain.
But the acquired companies — which range across just about every economic sector, from retailing to food to health care and housing — are often overloaded with debt to the point of unsustainability. They frequently slash jobs and benefits for employees, cut services and hike prices for consumers, and sometimes even endanger lives and undermine the social fabric.
It is a dismal record: Private equity firms presided over many of the largest retailer bankruptcies in the last decade — among them Toys “R” Us, Sears, RadioShack and Payless ShoeSource — resulting in nearly 600,000 lost jobs, according to a 2019 study by several left-leaning economic policy advocates.
Other investigations have shown that when private equity firms buy houses and apartments, rents and evictions soar. When they buy hospitals and doctors’ practices, the cost of care shoots up. When they buy nursing homes, patient mortality rises. When they buy newspapers, reporting on local governments dries up and participation in local elections declines.
It is unclear even if private equity pays off for the investors — like university endowments, public pension funds and wealthy individuals — who put money into the industry in the hopes of outsize returns. Since at least 2006, according to a study by the economist Ludovic Phalippou, the performance of the largest private equity funds has essentially matched returns of comparable publicly traded companies.
Still, the industry has been growing quickly, and it had a record year in 2021. According to McKinsey, private equity’s total assets under management reached almost $6.3 trillion last year. The American Investment Council, a trade group representing the industry, says that companies backed by private equity firms employ nearly 12 million Americans.
With the help of lax regulation and indefensible tax loopholes, private equity’s apparent destructiveness can be enormously profitable for its partners. Private equity firms make money by extracting hefty fees from their investors and from the companies they purchase, meaning they can succeed even if their investments go kaput. Phalippou found that between 2005 and 2020, the industry produced 19 multibillionaires.
“It’s a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose model,” said Jim Baker, the executive director of a watchdog group called the Private Equity Stakeholder Project.
But it gets worse: Not only do private equity partners make money even if their companies blow up; they also get a pretty good deal from the government on what they earn. Private equity funds generally charge their investors two different fees: a management fee of 2 percent of invested assets per year (funds are held for an average of about six years), and a “carried interest” fee that is 20 percent of any investment gains realized in the fund.
In most other industries, the Internal Revenue Service would categorize a fee like carried interest as ordinary income (like how your salary is taxed) rather than a capital gain (like how your stock market winnings are taxed). After all, the partners are receiving the fee as compensation for performing a service (managing investors’ money), not collecting a gain on their own invested capital (because it’s the investors’ money, not theirs).
But that’s not how it works for partnerships like private equity, hedge funds and venture capital firms. Under I.R.S. guidelines, carried interest is taxed as a capital gain, which has a top rate of 20 percent, rather than as income, which has a top rate of nearly 40 percent. The upshot: Millionaire and billionaire partners in private equity firms pay a far lower tax rate on much of their income than many of the rest of us.
The private equity industry defends its preferential rate by citing “sweat equity” — even if partners don’t put much of their own capital at stake, they are being rewarded for investing their “ideas and energy,” as Steve Klinsky, a former chair of the American Investment Council, put it in a recent article. But it’s difficult to find many beyond the industry who will defend carried interest’s low taxation.
Barack Obama called for the loophole to be eliminated. Donald Trump pledged to eliminate it. So did Joe Biden. Even several financial tycoons have called for its repeal — Jamie Dimon, Bill Ackman and Warren Buffett among them.
Despite widespread opposition, though, the tax break has somehow endured — as Tim Murphy wrote recently in Mother Jones, it has been “the most unkillable bad idea in a town with no shortage of them, a testament to the unstoppable combination of money and inertia.” (Murphy’s piece was part of an excellent, multipart investigation of the private equity industry published by the magazine.)
Back to the Associated Press:
Sinema’s defense of wealthy investors’ tax treatment offers a jarring contrast to her background as a Green Party activist and self-styled “Prada socialist” who once likened accepting campaign cash to “bribery” and later called for “big corporations & the rich to pay their fair share” before launching her first campaign for Congress in 2012.
She’s been far more magnanimous since, praising private equity in 2016 from the House floor for providing “billions of dollars each year to Main Street businesses.” After her election to the Senate, Sinema interned during the 2020 congressional recess at a private equity mogul’s boutique winery in Northern California.
The soaring contributions from the industry to Sinema trace back to last summer. That’s when she first made clear that she wouldn’t support a carried interest tax increase, as well as other corporate and business tax hikes included in an earlier iteration of Biden’s agenda.
During a two-week period in September alone, Sinema collected $47,100 in contributions from 16 high-ranking officials from the private equity firm Welsh, Carson, Anderson & Stowe, records show. Employees and executives of KKR, another private equity behemoth, contributed $44,100 to Sinema during a two-month span in late 2021.
In some cases, the families of private equity managers joined in. David Belluck, a partner at the firm Riverside Partners, gave a $5,800 max-out contribution to Sinema one day in late June. So did three of his college-age kids, with the family collectively donating $23,200, records show.
“I generally support centrist Democrats and her seat is important to keep a Democratic Senate majority,” Belluck said, adding that his family has known Sinema since her election to Congress. “She and I have never discussed private equity taxation.”
The donations from the industry coincide with a $26 million lobbying effort spearheaded by the investment firm Blackstone that culminated on the Senate floor last weekend.
By the time the bill was up for debate during a marathon series of votes, Sinema had already forced Democrats to abandon their carried interest tax increase.
“Senator Sinema said she would not vote for the bill … unless we took it out,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters last week. “We had no choice.”
But after private equity lobbyists discovered a provision in the bill that would have subjected many of them to a separate 15% corporate minimum tax, they urgently pressed Sinema and other centrist Democrats for changes, according to emails as well as four people with direct knowledge of the matter who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
“Given the breaking nature of this development we need as many offices as possible weighing in with concerns to Leader Schumer’s office,” Blackstone lobbyist Ryan McConaghy wrote in a Saturday afternoon email obtained by the AP, which included proposed language for modifying the bill. “Would you and your boss be willing to raise the alarm on this and express concerns with Schumer and team?”
McConaghy did not respond to a request for comment.
Sinema worked with Republicans on an amendment that stripped the corporate minimum tax on private equity from the bill, which a handful of vulnerable Democrats also voted for.
“Since she has been in Congress, Kyrsten has consistently supported pro-growth policies that encourage job creation across Arizona. Her tax policy positions and focus on growing Arizona’s economy and competitiveness are longstanding and well known,” Hurley, the Sinema spokesperson, said.
But many in her party disagree. They say the favorable tax treatment does little to boost the overall economy and argue there’s little compelling evidence to suggest its benefits are enjoyed beyond some of the wealthiest investors.
Some of Sinema’s donors make their case.
Blackstone, a significant source of campaign contributions, owns large tracts of real estate in Sinema’s home state, Arizona. The firm was condemned by United Nations experts in 2019 who said Blackstone’s financial model was responsible for a “financialization of housing” that has driven up rents and home costs, “pushing low-income, and increasingly middle-income people from their homes.”
Blackstone employees, executives and their family members have given Sinema $44,000 since 2018, records show.
In a statement, Blackstone called the allegations by the U.N. experts “false and misleading” and said all employee contributions are “strictly personal.” The firm added that it was “incredibly proud of its investments in housing.”
Another significant financial services donor is Centerbridge Partners, a New York-based firm that buys up the debt of distressed governments and companies and often uses hardball tactics to extract value. Since 2017, Sinema has collected at least $29,000 from donors associated with the firm, including co-founder Mark Gallogly and his wife, Elizabeth Strickler, records show.
In 2012, Centerbridge Partners purchased Arizona-based restaurant chain P.F. Chang’s for roughly $1 billion. After loading the struggling company up with $675 million of debt, they sold it to another private equity group in 2019, according to Bloomberg News. The company received a $10 million coronavirus aid loan to cover payroll, which the federal government later forgave, but shed jobs and closed locations as it struggled with the pandemic.
Centerbridge Partners was also part of a consortium of hedge funds that helped usher in an era of austerity in Puerto Rico after buying up billions of dollars of the island government’s $72 billion debt — and filing legal proceedings to collect. A subsidiary of Centerbridge Partners was among a group of creditors who repeatedly sued one of the U.S. territory’s pension funds. In one 2016 lawsuit, the group of creditors asked a judge to divert money from a Puerto Rican pension fund in order to collect.
A Centerbridge representative could not provide comment.
Liberal activists in Arizona say they plan to make Sinema’s reliance on donations from wealthy investors a campaign issue when she is up for reelection in 2024.
“There are many takes on how to win, but there is no universe in which it is politically smart to fight for favorable tax treatment of the wealthiest people in the country,” said Emily Kirkland, a political consultant who works for progressive candidates. “It’s absolutely going to be a potent issue.”
Take that job offer to be a high paid lobbyist for one of the most malignant financial industries in America, princess. Your political career is over.