One of the many burdens the nation's tax collectors place upon businesses in this country is that the businesses often must become tax collectors themselves.
When you buy a coat or a car or clarinet, you usually pay a local tax. But you don't pay the tax to the government, you pay it to the seller who then passes it along to the government.
Likewise, employees pay most, perhaps all, of their taxes to their employer. They don't write a check or fork over the cash. The government doesn't trust them enough. Instead, the employer is required to withhold what the employee is expected to owe in income and Social Security taxes and turn the money over to Uncle Sam.
The federal government says it appreciates this service, really it does.
But it's got a funny way of showing it. Instead of rolling out a red carpet for these surrogate tax collectors, the government has set up a system plainly devised to torture them, tease them and ultimately to extract from them more money than was actually owed by their employees.
While local sales tax collections are a mild annoyance, the Federal Tax Deposit (FTD) system is a diabolical scheme that no one, not even the Internal Revenue Service, seems to understand.
Thus, according to Congress's General Accounting Office, roughly one employer in three gets socked with a penalty every year, penalties that added up to $2.6 billion in fiscal 1988. And, of course, the main victims of this system are small businesses, who accounted for nearly three-quarters of the penalties.
"It's just a horrible system," said D.J. Gribbin of the National Federation of Independent Business.
Gribbin and other small-business advocates liken the FTD system to the old-fashioned speed traps run by small towns. "It's not to enforce the law; it's to raise revenue," said John Motley of NFIB.
Small business has made several legislative pushes over the past decade aimed at simplifying the FTD system. But so far, the fact that such simplification might cost money -- either by cutting penalties or by deferring some collections into the next fiscal year -- has been enough to stifle reform.
Now, however, a recently completed GAO study shows how the system could be simplified and the government could even come out ahead.
Under the GAO plan, the five-step system of triggers and deadlines would be replaced with one simple rule and one exception. The rule: Every employer would have to deposit withheld funds within three days of payday. The exception: Any employer whose liability is less than a certain threshold -- the GAO looked at amounts ranging from $3,000 to $30,000 -- would have to make deposits monthly.
That would speed up collections from employers enough to save the government anywhere from $94 million to $209 million each year, depending on where the threshold were set.
The GAO believes that any discomfort to employers caused by the speedup would be offset by the fact that it would be far easier to predict how much and when the employer would have to pay.
Under the existing system, employers with liabilities of less than $500 don't have to deposit. They can send the money in with their quarterly tax filings. But above that, taxes are carried over and aggregated until more deposit requirements of increasing frequency are triggered.
Those familiar with inside-the-beltway language can skip the next paragraph, but for small-business people and other masochists, here is how the GAO describes just one of the rules (Rule 4):
"If the total accumulated undeposited employment taxes are over $3,000 at the end of one of eight deposit periods within each month, the taxes are required to be deposited within three banking days after the end of the period. For deposit purposes, each month within the quarter is divided into eight deposit periods ending on the third, seventh, eleventh, nineteenth, twenty-second, twenty-fifth and last day of the month."
Got it? No? Well, you're not alone.
This sliding scale of requirements forces employers to monitor their payroll and tax liability to make sure they haven't triggered a new requirement.
NFIB's Motley said employers in cyclical businesses, such as retailing, are particularly hard hit.
When GAO looked at a sample of employers who had been penalized, it found that 31 percent faced at least one change in their deposit requirement during the quarter.
In more than half of these cases, "the employers made timely deposits under their initial deposit requirement but were penalized when their payroll and associated employment taxes increased later in the quarter and triggered a different deposit requirement."
GAO acknowledges that its system could expose the government to some additional risk in the case of a business that falls behind in its payments.
The Treasury Department, although it agrees with GAO's observations about the complexity of the existing system, apparently is content to do nothing for small-business employers while making permanent a now-temporary speedup for large companies.
"We doubt that the employment tax payment system proposed by GAO would be an improvement over the current system," Assistant Treasury Secretary Kenneth W. Gideon wrote in response to the GAO report.
It's hard to imagine a system that wouldn't be an improvement on the current system. The Bush administration is fond of saying how valuable small business is to the nation. This would be a nice area in which to show some of that appreciation by deed and not just by word.