Washington Senators used a tax bill to firmly scold corporate America for the excesses and misconduct of the stock market's boom years, voting to crack down on shelters and curb executive misdeeds.
Businesses still reeling from a wave of scandals have been unfairly targeted, said Bruce Josten, a lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Out of 17,000 publicly traded companies in the nation, "we probably couldn't come up with more than 30 companies in that whole abuse, scandal thing," Josten said.
The lawmaker who wrote most of the corporate crackdown measures into the tax bill passed late Thursday night, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, sees it differently.
"We have seen in Enron-type corporation scandals that there is no end to the cleverness of con artists in the corporate world," he said.
The items in the tax bill reflect continuing outrage in Congress over the accounting and tax maneuvers of Enron, WorldCom and other companies that inflated their earnings and misled shareholders.
The bill includes few tax breaks for the nation's largest corporations; instead, small businesses get breaks from a reduction of the top income tax rate and increased equipment purchase write-offs.
That reflects Grassley's philosophy that small businesses create most of the nation's jobs.
"I had jobs because of small entrepreneurs investing and creating a job for me," he said.
The bill also collects corporate reforms that lawmakers have been debating since the scandals started. Companies would no longer use creative accounting maneuvers that only decrease their tax bill and serve no other business purpose, or risk paying penalties.
"Doing it in the sunshine will reduce the problem," said Chris Rizek, a tax lawyer and expert on corporate tax procedure. "People won't be able to play the audit lottery with these questionable transactions."
Lawmakers require chief executive officers to sign their companies' tax returns "on penalty of perjury." Business leaders point out that the IRS can already fine and jail executives for filing false returns.
Corporations would no longer deduct settlement payments from their tax liability, whether or not they admit guilt. That item stems from an investigation into 10 of Wall Street's biggest firms for conflicts of interest in stock research; some companies had planned to deduct part of the $1.4 billion settlement from their taxes.