WASHINGTON — At a time when higher taxes or deeper government spending cuts seem to be the only options available to close the gaping federal deficit, going after more $400 billion a year in uncollected taxes should be a no-brainer.
But in the nation's capital, the so-called "tax gap" hardly rates a mention in the official discussion of America's fiscal woes.
In government parlance, the "tax gap" is the difference between the taxes owed and what's actually paid on time. In their most recent analysis, from 2001, the Internal Revenue Service estimated that only about 84 percent of federal taxes were voluntarily paid on time that year, leaving a gross tax gap of $345 billion, or roughly 16 percent, uncollected.
Late payments and IRS collection efforts brought in another $50 billion, which cut the net tax gap to $290 billion in 2001. But similar estimates point to a gross tax gap of $410 billion to $500 billion in 2010, said Benjamin Harris, a research economist at the Brookings Institution, a center-left research group.
"You could go a long way toward solving our budget mess by closing the tax gap, but the problem is, it's not easily closed," Harris said.
The IRS plans a new analysis of the tax gap later this year or early next year, but the trends are clear.
In the past 20 years, the U.S. economy has grown more complex, blurring the lines between personal and business income and creating more opportunities for tax scofflaws. Congress limits the IRS budget, and sophisticated tax cheats realize their chances of detection are relatively low. Others say that most who misreport their earnings do so inadvertently because of the complexity of the tax code.
Better, more targeted IRS enforcement could probably cut the tax gap by 10 percent without any fundamental changes to the IRS, Harris estimates. Cutting the gap further would require more thorough IRS reporting, increased tax withholding and more money for IRS enforcement.
But the political will to bolster the feared IRS collection apparatus and turn it loose on American citizens just isn't there.
"The government could close the tax gap entirely by putting IRS agents in every family's living room and in every small business. But this is a price that a liberty-loving people and their representatives are rightly unwilling to pay," said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the senior Republican member of the Senate Finance Committee, which helps write America's tax laws.
The Obama administration wants to increase the IRS budget from $12.1 billion to $13.3 billion in fiscal 2012 and add 5,000 new IRS agents. About $240 million would go for "new, revenue-generating tax enforcement initiatives aimed at closing the tax gap," according to a Treasury Department budget request. The measures would reap an estimated $1.3 billion in extra annual tax revenue by 2014.
But House Republicans, spurred by the anti-tax sentiment of tea party activists, voted to cut the IRS budget by $600 million in fiscal year 2012, citing the need to cut the budget deficit.
IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman told lawmakers that the proposed GOP cuts would cause tax collections to fall by $4 billion because they'd require slashing the agency's enforcement budget.
But Curtis Dubay, senior tax policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said Shulman was simply "posturing" to preserve IRS funding.
Strengthening IRS enforcement is a mistake, Dubay said, because "the tax gap is not the result of people illegally evading taxes. It's the result of an overly complex tax code that gets more and more complex every day."
Whether by willful evasion or unintentional mistakes, businesses and individuals that fail to report, underreport or underpay their taxes cause honest taxpayers to pay more — about $2,200 apiece — to make up the revenue shortfall. That basic unfairness erodes confidence in the tax system, which lowers taxpayer morale and, in turn, increases noncompliance.
The biggest losers are America's wage earners and salaried workers, who pay an estimated 99 percent of their fair tax burden because their taxes are automatically withheld from their pay and reported by a third party, their employers.
But individuals with business income — mainly self-employed, sole proprietors who get paid in cash — misreport roughly 54 percent of their actual income by either underreporting it, or claiming deductions, credits and exemptions to which they aren't entitled.
"This is incredible," Harris said. "You kind of feel like a sucker as a wage earner. Here you are paying taxes because someone else is paying you, but if someone else is getting paid on their own, they pay taxes at half the rate."
These taxpayers escape an estimated $110 billion in taxes each year, according to 2001 IRS estimates. Experts agree the amount has surely grown since then.
"And you can do all the audits you want, but this money is never going to show up," Harris said. "This is what makes the tax gap so hard to close."
In testimony this week before the Senate Finance Committee, David Kirkham, the president of Kirkham Motorsports in Provo, Utah, said it's "undeniable" that some of his business acquaintances underreport their income, mainly because of the complex tax code but also because they feel the system is unfair.
"They feel like other people are getting away with it," Kirkham said. "Let's face it, when (General Electric) is not paying taxes...what does the average little guy think?"
The beauty salon industry offers a telling example of the problem. Unlike other industries with significant income from tips, many salon staffers are classified as "self-employed" workers, not company employees. This allows them to self-report their income and tips instead of the shop owners.
Kris Carpenter, the owner of the Sanctuary beauty salon in Billings, Mont., felt her employees were reporting only 25 percent of their actual tips. "It's easy," Carpenter said of the practice. "Anything that's cash disappears."
To fight the problem, Carpenter in 2001 began using sales software that reported tip income. In the past 10 years, the shop has reported $1.7 million in tip income to the IRS, an amount Carpenter found "astounding." In 2010 alone, Sanctuary paid nearly $16,400 in taxes on more than $225,000 in tip income.
But her honesty hasn't been rewarded. Not only have those tax payments made it harder to remain profitable, but Carpenter also said many employees have left her shop to be self-employed workers in salons where the income-reporting requirements aren't as strict.
"The ease of not reporting income and tip income along with the common misconception that 'tips are gifts, not income,' puts my business at a competitive disadvantage," Carpenter told the Finance Committee.
The Tax Equalization and Compliance Act sponsored by Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, would tighten tip-reporting practices in the salon industry.
One niche industry helps taxpayers avoid paying taxes altogether. Between 1 million and 1.5 million Americans are believed to have undeclared offshore accounts where untaxed income is hidden and accessed through credit and debit cards, said David Callahan, a senior fellow at Demos, a liberal research and advocacy group in New York.
Others hide money in phony offshore companies under the guise of payments for business services.
Callahan said the Taxpayer Bill of Rights made it easier to cheat by requiring the IRS to show evidence of intent to prove tax evasion.
"Sophisticated people know that if you cheat on your taxes and get caught, you're going to have to pay the money back. But if you say 'I lost my receipts,' 'I didn't understand how the deductions work,' you're off the hook," Callahan said, with "a slap on the wrist."
The IRS has stepped up efforts to catch these typically affluent cheaters. In the past three years, the agency has nearly doubled its audit rate on wealthy filers who earn more than $10 million a year.
Under a 2009 amnesty program, nearly 15,000 taxpayers avoided prosecution by disclosing their holdings in offshore accounts and agreeing to pay penalties and six years of back taxes on the undeclared income. A similar amnesty program expires on Aug. 31, but this round of offenders face stiffer penalties than the last group.
Compliance with tax laws increases when income-reporting requirements increase. But efforts to shore up lax reporting standards have faced strong opposition, even though the IRS civilian oversight board called it "a reasonable approach to increasing tax revenues at minimum expense," in its 2010 report to Congress.
A provision of the 2010 health care act would have required all businesses, tax-exempt organizations and government entities to file an IRS form for every vendor that they purchase more than $600 in goods from in a year.
About 40 million businesses, including 26 million sole proprietorships, would have been subject to the new law, which was expected to generate billions of dollars to help offset the cost of the health care bill. But critics said it placed too large a burden on small businesses and National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson, who helps citizens with problems before the IRS, said the measure "may turn out to be disproportionate as compared with any resulting improvement in tax compliance."
Lawmakers from both parties voted to kill the measure and President Barack Obama went along, signing its repeal.
This week, Olson said Congress could simplify the tax code to make sure everyone pays their fair share. That would lower taxes for everyone. Among her recommendations: repeal the alternative minimum tax for individuals; consolidate complicated tax incentives for education and retirement savings; curb enactment of temporary tax provisions and standardize the home-office deduction.
Obama and top lawmakers from both parties have called for overhauling the tax code, but there's been little effort to do so this year.
ON THE WEB
Tax law complexity, compliance and the tax gap
National tax advocate testimony on the tax gap
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
States broke? Maybe they cut taxes too much
AIDS at 30:Killer has been tamed, but not conquered
With more jobs in 2011, it may finally feel like recovery
Obama vows to end homelessness in 10 years
Land of plenty? U.S. hunger rate remains stubbornly high
McClatchy Newspapers 2011