FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Privatizing the IRS

Here are two idioms that have no applicability to the United States Congress: “Once bitten, twice shy;” “The third time’s a charm.”

It was all brought to mind upon seeing the headline in the New York Times on January 10, 2018, a few short days before Congress decided it was easier to shut down the government than to legislate.  The headline announced that the I.R.S.  “paid $20 million to collect $6.7 million in Tax Debts.” At first blush the reader assumed this was a story that had somehow crept into the newspaper by mistake and escaped the attention of the articles editor.  The reader who thought that could be forgiven for being surprised at seeing the story.  That is because that story had appeared in the New York Times and other publications on two earlier occasions.

In 1996 Congress decided that the Internal Revenue Service could be assisted in collecting unpaid taxes by hiring Private Collection Agencies known as PCAs.  Their task was to undertake collections from delinquent taxpayers.  The program lasted one year before it was terminated.  It was terminated because instead of making money for the government by collecting back taxes, it cost the government $17 million.   In addition, it was learned that the PCAs had regularly violated the terms of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

Those interested in collecting past due debts might find themselves leery of giving such a failed effort a second chance.  Proving that “once bitten, twice shy” does not apply to Congress, however, the program was re-introduced again in 2004 as part of the American Jobs Creation Act. According to projections at the time that Act was passed, and contrary to empirical evidence from less than 10 years earlier, its Congressional supporters said that the PCAs would collect $1.3 billion and receive commissions of $350 million. It was, so the Congress believed, a sure fire winner.

In 2008 the House Ways and Means Committee held hearings to determine how well the program was working.  Here is what it learned.  It learned that 85 percent of the people contacted by the PCAs did not owe any back taxes.  It learned that, whereas it cost the IRS $.07 for every dollar it collected, it cost the PCAs $.24 to collect the same amount.  The IRS had an 11 percent success rate whereas the PCAs had a 4 percent success rate.  The PCAs did not collect the promised $1.3 billion.  They collected $4.5 million.  By most measures that would not be considered a success.  Nonetheless, the program continued until it was ended in 2009 by President Obama, who looked at the statistics and came to the conclusion that the program was not working as advertised by its proponents in 2004.  Ending the program infuriated Senator Chuck Grassley (R. IA) who had always been a strong supporter of the program and believed that notwithstanding its obvious failures, the fact that the collections were handled by the private sector rather than the public sector was reason enough to continue the program. (Senator Grassley also observed that 60 people in his home state of Iowa would lose their jobs as a result of termination of the program.) And that brings us to the present when we learn that “the third time’s a charm” has no applicability to congressional actions.

In December 2015, Congress enacted a law that required the IRS to use PSAs yet again, in order to collect a part of the $138 billion delinquent taxpayers owed the government. On September 26, 2016, the IRS announced that, following the Congressional mandate, it planned “to begin private collection of certain overdue federal tax debts [in 2016] and has selected four contractors.” The program was in effect during 2017.  It was not only Congress that thought the idea of private debt collection was a great idea. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, (whose name suggests his ancestors came from the land of Oz) was asked about the program during his confirmation hearing and said: “it seems like a very obvious thing to do.”  It may have been obvious.  It was not successful. According to the I.R.S.’s taxpayer advocate, in 2017 the I.R.S. received $6.7 million in taxes collected by the PSAs whereas the PSAs received $20 million in commissions. In addition, in some cases, the PSAs received 25% commissions on collections that they had no role in obtaining. As of this writing, there is no suggestion that Congress intends to end this program.  Instead, Congress has been cutting the I.R.S.’ budget.

When John Koskinen ended his tenure as commissioner of the IRS in early November 2016, he was open in his criticism of how Congress was funding the IRS. Among other things, he observed that the agency has lost 20,000 full time staffers since 2010.  It has lost one-third of its compliance officers. (They are the ones who make the recalcitrant tax payer pay and the ones whose tasks are now being be supplemented by the PSAs.) Things are not all bleak for the PSAs, however.  If Congress continues to cut the IRS’s budget, as it seems certain to do, and if, as a result, the agency continues to lose compliance officers, its ability to collect delinquent taxes will get even worse than it now is, and if its budget is cut far enough, the PSAs will look good by comparison, thus justifying their continued employment. Go figure.

More articles by:

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

April 23, 2019
Peter Belmont
The Monroe Doctrine is Back, and as the Latest US Attack on Cuba Shows, Its Purpose is to Serve the Neoliberal Order
David Schultz
The Mueller Report: Trump Too Inept to Obstruct Justice
Geoff Beckman
Crazy Uncle Joe and the Can’t We All Just Get Along Democrats
Medea Benjamin
Activists Protect DC Venezuelan Embassy from US-supported Coup
Patrick Cockburn
What Revolutionaries in the Middle East Have Learned Since the Arab Spring
Jim Goodman
Don’t Fall for the Hype of Free Trade Agreements
Lance Olsen
Climate and Forests: Land Managers Must Adapt, and Conservationists, Too
William Minter
The Coming Ebola Epidemic
Tony McKenna
Stephen King’s IT: a 2019 Retrospective
David Swanson
Pentagon Claims 1,100 High Schools Bar Recruiters; Peace Activists Offer $1,000 Award If Any Such School Can Be Found
Gary Olson
A Few Comments on the recent PBS Series: Reconstruction: America After the Civil War
April 22, 2019
Melvin Goodman
The NYTs Tries to Rehabilitate Bloody Gina Haspel
Robert Fisk
After ISIS, a Divided Iraq, Wounded and Grief-Stricken
Binoy Kampmark
Julian Assange as Neuroses
John Laforge
Chernobyl’s Deadly Effects Estimates Vary
Kenneth Surin
Mueller Time? Not for Now
Cesar Chelala
Yemen: The Triumph of Barbarism
Kerron Ó Luain
What the “White Irish Slaves” Meme Tells Us About Identity Politics
Andy Piascik
Grocery Store Workers Take on Billion Dollar Multinational
Seiji Yamada – Gregory G. Maskarinec
Health as a Human Right: No Migrants Need Apply
Howard Lisnoff
Loose Bullets and Loose Cannons
Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada
Dreaming in Miami
Graham Peebles
Consuming Stuff: The Polluting World of Fashion
Robert Dodge
Earth Day: Our Planet in Peril
Weekend Edition
April 19, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
What Will It Take For Trump to Get His Due?
Roy Eidelson
Is the American Psychological Association Addicted to Militarism and War?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Time is Blind, Man is Stupid
Joshua Frank
Top 20 Mueller Report “Findings”
Rob Urie
Why Russiagate Will Never Go Away
Paul Street
Stephen Moore Gets Something Right: It’s Capitalism vs. Democracy
Russell Mokhiber
Why Boeing and Its Executives Should be Prosecuted for Manslaughter
T.J. Coles
The Battle for Latin America: How the U.S. Helped Destroy the “Pink Tide”
Ron Jacobs
Ho Chi Minh City: Nguyen Thai Binh Street
Dean Baker
Fun Fictions in Economics
David Rosen
Trump’s One-Dimensional Gender Identity
Kenn Orphan
Notre Dame: We Have Always Belonged to Her
Robert Hunziker
The Blue Ocean Event and Collapsing Ecosystems
Theodore C. Van Alst, Jr.
Paddy Wagon
Brett Wilkins
Jimmy Carter: US ‘Most Warlike Nation in History of the World’
John W. Whitehead
From Jesus Christ to Julian Assange: When Dissidents Become Enemies of the State
Nick Pemberton
To Never Forget or Never Remember
Stephen Cooper
My Unforgettable College Stabbings
Louis Proyect
A Leftist Rejoinder to the “Capitalist Miracle”
Louisa Willcox
Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic and the Need for a New Approach to Managing Wildlife
Brian Cloughley
Britain Shakes a Futile Fist and Germany Behaves Sensibly
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail