If you didn’t like the 2008 Farm Bill before, get ready for an IRS-sized dose of malarkey. The massive bill, officially enacted to support farmers but in reality does more to benefit the billion-dollar agribusiness industry, has paved the way for the IRS to come after your tax refund, even if you have good standing with Uncle Sam. According to the Washington Post, Congress’ enacted Farm Bill repealed a statute of limitations on old debts owed to the feds. Historically, this statute prevented the Treasury Department from coming after debtors after ten years. Now, taxpayers across the country are seeing the effects and the government aims to get $1.1 billion.
The article mentions one woman who suddenly had no tax return because the IRS determined that her family was overpaid for her father’s death benefits, which had been paid out since 1960. IRS officials are not sure specifically who was overpaid so they chose her to make up the difference. In all, the IRS has collected $424 million in “new” debt, i.e. debt that has only recently been available to collect in the wake of the statute’s repeal. Yet, this new tactic is not limited to the IRS. The Social Security Administration is now working to get benefits from nearly 400,000 taxpayers, totaling some $714 million.
What does the IRS have to say? “... [W]e understand the importance of ensuring that debtors are treated fairly.” Perhaps the agency should clarify what it means by “fairly” when many taxpayers have received no notice of the actions taken against them. The same woman mentioned above was apparently sent a notice from Social Security but to an address she had in the late 1970s. Generally, the IRS suggests that you keep tax documents for three years, so the accused are depending on the government to produce evidence from their records. It seems that Social Security’s records are often incomplete, making it difficult to contest officials’ claims.
So, to reiterate: a bill presumably designed to protect the agriculture industry included a new power enabling federal officials to take money from Americans who may have indirectly benefited from a payout beyond ten years ago; BUT, those officials don’t really have the records to back up their claims.
There are a few takeaways from this:
- Taxpayers are paying for massive benefits programs that can’t accurately keep track of payouts (the initial problem).
- Congress passed a law that included a provision that now permits agencies to take Americans’ money seemingly at will, and with little proof.
- The IRS and Social Security are expending new efforts (with added administrative costs) to recover about $1.1 billion.
- Tax collectors have decided that this method is better than the alternatives.
What are the alternatives? Quite a few, but let’s look at two. One would address the core problem and one would be a more fair way to get outstanding debt.
If Americans had a simpler tax system, one which didn’t take 6.4 billion hours and $192.6 billion to comply with, some of these errors and inefficiencies would go away. Some proposals would try to cut down on the number of exemptions and deductions one can take, resulting in a more streamlined and less error-prone tax bill. Others take further steps to reform the entire system in the hopes of making tax preparations a mere inconvenience, instead of a heavy burden. NTU Foundation has examined some of these proposals, including the flat tax and the Fair Tax, many of which would reduce federal spending in addition to less time and money spent by taxpayers.
Another option is to change who the government goes after for outstanding debt. Instead of targeting debt that is decades old, IRS and Social Security investigators could shift their focus to those who are alive and kicking. One easy place to start is inside the government itself. According to a handy chart on Don’t Mess With Taxes, the government could recover $3.3 billion in back taxes (that’s 65 percent more than what is being collected in old debt AND it would be from the debtors themselves, not relatives who had no say in the matter).
If legislators should take just one lesson from all of this (and I know that’s asking a lot), it is to write bills that are simple, succinct, and single-issue focused. Taxpayers are on the receiving end of these bloated Acts that put more complexity in the Tax Code. This is also not a wholly partisan issue. As Republicans rally against the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reforms, Democrats are pitching fits over the Farm Bill and Defense Authorization, all of which are putting taxpayers on the hook for more when they are in need of less.