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Apple, Obama and the Federal Highway Trust Fund

February 1, 2015, 10:28 PM UTC

Between the bipartisan bill proposed last week and the budget request President Obama is expected to deliver on Monday, momentum is building for an idea that may sound too good for most politicians to resist.

Rather than raise gas taxes to fill the gaping hole in the Highway Trust Fund — scheduled to run dry in May — all of Washington seems to be eying the $2 trillion in untaxed earnings U.S. companies have parked overseas.

The bill Barbara Boxer and Rand Paul unveiled Thursday would offer those companies a voluntary, one-time tax holiday, giving them a steep tax discount — 6.5% rather than the usual 35% — if they bring their money home.

President Obama, White House officials are telling the press, will propose a steeper rate — 14% for existing earnings, 19% for future — that’s not at all voluntary. Profits earned overseas would be taxed whether they come home or not.

Both proposals would hit Apple — but not as hard as you might think.

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Apple has, as near as I can tell, the biggest single hoard of un-repatriated foreign profits ever accumulated — $158 billion, according to the quarterly report filed this week, or 89% of Apple’s $178 billion in cash and marketable securities. (The attached USPIRG list, headed by General Electric, is several years out of date.)

Apple would no doubt prefer to pay 6.5% tax than 14%. But either way, there’s a silver lining.

Unlike some of its competitors, Apple has been accounting for U.S. taxes on its foreign earnings all along, and according to the company has already paid the IRS nearly half of what its accountants think it owes. By the end of fiscal 2014, Apple’s most recent 10-K reports, its “unrecognized deferred tax liability” was approximately $23.3 billion.

For the record, Apple isn’t asking for a tax holiday. What it would rather see, Tim Cook told a Senate subcommittee two years ago, is comprehensive tax reform that makes the code as easy to understand as Apple’s products are to use.

This reform should be revenue neutral,” he said in prepared remarks, “eliminate all corporate tax expenditures, lower corporate income tax rates and implement a reasonable tax on foreign earnings that allows the free flow of capital back to the U.S. We make this recommendation with our eyes wide open, realizing this would likely increase Apple’s U.S. taxes. But we strongly believe such comprehensive reform would be fair to all taxpayers, would keep America globally competitive and would promote U.S. economic growth.”

Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter at @philiped. Read his Apple AAPL coverage at or subscribe via his RSS feed.