Eric Liebowitz—HBO/Courtesy Everett Collection
By Jacob Davidson
April 13, 2015

On last night’s Last Week Tonight, John Oliver made news with an argument he acknowledged many viewers might find hard to believe: The Internal Revenue Service, the most maligned of all government organizations, needs more money, not less.

The whole segment is worth watching. (Mostly safe for work, depending on where you work. Maybe use headphones.) But the key point is that the IRS has had its funding cut by about 10% in the last five years, and by nearly 20% if you adjust for inflation. In that same time period, the IRS has also significantly cut enforcement staff.

 

So what if enforcement is weaker? It may mean more people are getting away with paying less than they owe. Every five years, the IRS calculates what’s known as the “tax gap”—the amount of taxes owed minus what is actually paid—and the results are a pretty ugly. The most recent report, produced in 2012 for tax year 2006, puts the tax gap at $450 billion dollars. (The gap shrinks to “only” $385 billion once you take into account late payments and money recouped through enforcement.) Think of it like this: Every dollar someone gets out of paying ultimately has to be made up by the rest of us taxpayers, in the form of higher taxes.

It’s important to note that closing this entire tax gap is likely impossible. The U.S. tax system is build on voluntary compliance, and a very large portion of the government’s losses come from people underreporting their incomes from sources that are hard to verify, such as a self-employed person understating profits.

Detractors have argued the IRS shouldn’t get more funding until it improves its performance. The agency has been rocked by allegations that it targeted conservative non-profit groups in delaying their tax exempt status, and Republicans, like Senator Rob Portman, still harbor deep mistrust toward the agency.

That said, the Treasury Department estimates a $1 investment in the IRS’s enforcement ability returns $6 in revenue, and that’s not counting the deterrent effect on potential cheats, which Treasury says may be three times higher. Finding a way to close just a small portion of the tax gap would save the public huge amounts of money.

Read Next: 3 Ideas That Could Make the Tax System Work Better for Everyone

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