The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The people fighting to starve the IRS think the law doesn’t apply to them

File photo of the Internal Revenue Service headquarters in Washington. (J. David Ake/AP)

Here’s one issue that both the left and right should be able to agree on: Fund the police. Specifically, the tax police.

If you care about “law and order,” if you think unpatriotic hucksters are getting away with scamming Uncle Sam or, heck, if you don’t want your own taxes to increase, you should demand to beef up the Internal Revenue Service.

Yet for some reason the leading lights of the conservative movement are trying to block tax cops from enforcing the law.

While nearly all Americans say that paying taxes is a civic duty, some scofflaws nonetheless shirk. The difference between what Americans legally owe in taxes and what they actually pay is an estimated $554 billion per year. Part of the reason the tax gap is so enormous is that the agency tasked with collecting revenue and detecting cheats has been starved of resources.

During the past decade, the IRS budget has been slashed more than 20 percent in inflation-adjusted terms. Meanwhile, the agency has been loaded up with more complicated responsibilities, including implementing the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act; combating identity theft; issuing pandemic stimulus payments; and, starting next week, lifting millions out of poverty through monthly child benefits.

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Something had to give, and that something has largely been enforcement. The number of IRS personnel in key enforcement occupations has fallen by 40 percent.

Audit rates of the wealthy and large corporations have, unsurprisingly, also plummeted.

In 2012, for example, nearly every corporation with more than $20 billion in assets was audited. Last fiscal year, that share had dropped to just more than a third, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC). Such audits uncovered $10 billion in unreported taxes in 2012, vs. $4.1 billion last year.

Recently, some commentators expressed astonishment at the scale and brazenness of the tax fraud that New York prosecutors allege occurred at the Trump Organization. Members of the Trump family have more or less admittedto these alleged crimes on live TV, and suggested their tax dodges were so commonplace that they expected to never get caught. In a sense, they were right: The feds, at least, have all but given up on prosecuting tax crimes.

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump bragged about his vast knowledge of the tax code. Days after his company’s indictment, he feigned ignorance about it. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

The number of federal prosecutions per capita referred by the IRS last year was about a quarter of its peak three decades ago, according to TRAC data.

As the Trump Organization case helpfully illustrates, adequately funding the IRS would be a moneymaking proposition. Each additional dollar invested in the IRS generates several dollars in return, by enabling the agency to detect and collect tax bills already owed and by deterring future tax cheats. Every presidential administration since at least Ronald Reagan (including the Trump administration) has acknowledged this, and given at least lip service to increased tax enforcement. Who doesn’t want to be tough on (white-collar) crime, and reduce “waste, fraud and abuse”?

Increased funding for the IRS even made it into the bipartisan infrastructure deal, since it allowed senators to agree to a “pay-for” that doesn’t require raising tax rates.

And yet: The pseudointellectual brain trust that has long powered the GOP is now lobbying against adequately funding the IRS. Which proves that these anti-tax crusaders are (and have long been) a bunch of unserious grifters — less interested in “generating economic growth” than in lining their own pockets.

Among the backers of the lobbying effort are billionaire Robert Mercer and notorious charlatan Stephen Moore, both of whom have previously run into trouble with the IRS for alleged tax dodges. They’re part of a consortium that once claimed to care about cutting tax rates to supercharge the economy but has apparently dropped the pretense. Making sure taxes legally owed are actually collected is not only fairer; it also helps keeps rates down. When tax compliance is higher, the government can set rates lower and still collect the same amount of revenue.

Inversely, when some people don’t pay their bills, the rest of us have to pay more to make up the shortfall.

If, say, the chief financial officer of a real estate company doesn’t pay taxes on the personal car that his company gifts to his wife; or on the rent for the luxury apartment that his employer is funding; or on the wads of cash his company slips him for holiday bonuses, off the books; or on the private-school tuition his boss pays for the CFO’s grandkids, all that means the government is paying roughly half the bill, based on the CFO’s likely marginal tax rate.

Which effectively means it’s really being paid by you, my fellow taxpayer. You are paying for his wife’s Mercedes, his holiday tips, his grandkids’ tuition. You are paying for his luxury apartment. And you don’t even get to live there!

The people fighting to starve the IRS are the people who imagine the law doesn’t apply to them, only to the little people. If you want these thugs to pay what they owe, put more tax cops on the beat.

Read more:

Catherine Rampell: The tax system is working as intended. So if we want to tax the rich, here are some alternative options.

Megan McArdle: Think twice before changing the tax rules to soak billionaires

Five finance ministers: Why we need a global corporate minimum tax

Christine Emba: Is it time to limit personal wealth?