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The Tax Collector and the Republican

Posted: 04/21/11 05:51 PM ET

"Taxes are what we pay for civilized society." -- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Compania de Tabacos v. Collector

Congressional Republicans constantly remind us that principle is more important than principal. They are willing to shrink government at all costs. The latest example comes from the new budget agreement that has an impact on the IRS and tax collections.

Tax collection is one of the IRS's principle functions as we are all reminded this time of year. There are some who not only refuse to cheerfully pay what they owe but actively take steps to avoid paying taxes they owe. As a result, some IRS employees have as their main job identifying those people and taking steps to encourage them to pay what they owe.

In 2006, Republicans in Congress came up with a whole new approach that provided employment to the non-governmental sector, a group that is always favored by Republicans. (That is because Republicans know that those who work for the government tend to be lazy and inefficient whereas those in the private sector are hard working and productive. That is, of course, something of a generalization, since occasionally someone in the private sector will disappoint and prove to be lazy and/or unproductive.)

Because of the Republican belief in the virtues of the private sector (which is almost as fervent as its belief that in taking funds from programs for children and the poor it is doing God's work), in August of 2006 it was announced that within a couple of weeks the IRS would turn over to private collection agencies 12,500 delinquent tax accounts of $25,000 or less. According to the New York Times, this new way of collecting taxes was thought up and put in place by the Bush administration. The plan had, like many plans do, an upside and a downside.

The upside was that the debt collectors were part of the private sector. Under the private debt collection system the collectors would collect $1.4 billion each year, of which they could keep $330 million, thus lining the private sector's pockets by that amount instead of having it go into a government pocket where it would, in all likelihood, get lost. Although that seems like a win-win, in 2002 Charles Rossotti, the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, had told Congress that if it hired additional IRS employees to handle collections, it could collect more than $9 billion each year at a cost of only $296 million, considerably less than the cost if the same work was done by private collection agencies. That came out to a cost of $.03 per dollar collected. According to the NYT, his testimony was correct but Congress didn't want to swell the size of government by authorizing the hiring of additional personnel for the IRS. Charles Everson, IRS Commissioner in 2006 when the private debt collection program was implemented, agreed with Mr. Rossotti and said it was more efficient to hire more IRS personnel but Congress would not appropriate the funds it needed to do that. Congress's reluctance is a perfectly sensible approach since if you want to shrink government you have to make sacrifices and in this case, the sacrifice is increased revenue.

In 2008 Democrats took control of both houses of Congress and in March of 2009 it was announced that the IRS had determined that IRS employees could do collection work more efficiently than the private debt collectors, just as Messrs Rossotti and Everson had said some years earlier, and there was no reason to continue the program. Senator Grassley, who was the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, was outraged. Ignoring the fact that the government would have more money if the IRS were responsible for collections, he said the IRS was caving in to "union-driven political pressure." He would have rather seen the federal government lose money than take away business from the private sector. The last chapter in this saga, however, has not been written.

Now that the budget compromise had been reached here is one of the things that has happened. The White House had requested an increase in the IRS budget of approximately 9% which would have enabled the agency to hire an additional 5000 personnel. Many of those could have been used to collect taxes which would have helped reduce the deficit. Echoing what Messrs. Rossotti and Everson had said years earlier, Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, who testified before Congress in March, said: "Every dollar invested in IRS yields nearly five dollars in increased revenue from non-compliant taxpayers."

Republicans have refused to authorize the hiring of additional personnel at the IRS in order to collect taxes. A release from John Boehner's office said increased funding for the IRS had been denied as part of the budget agreement. This shows that the Republican majority has the courage of its convictions. The rest of the country can enjoy the benefits of living off the fruits of its follies.


Christopher Brauchli can be emailed at brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu. For political commentary see his web page at http://humanraceandothersports.com