If you don't take care of your taxes, you risk some pretty expensive fines and penalties. Some of those amounts are fixed, like $89 per partner per month for failing to file your partnership return. Others are based on the actual tax due, like the 10% penalty for failing to file employment taxes. If the IRS has to come after you, they can slap liens on your home or other property. They can impose levies to pluck back taxes from your paycheck, your bank account, or your retirement plan. They can even seize your assets and auction them to collect their pound of flesh.
Having said all that, would it surprise you to learn that there's someone with a "Get Out of Jail Free" card for not paying his taxes? Would it surprise you even more to learn that it's Uncle Sam himself?
The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration ("TIGTA") is an independent board that oversees the IRS. Their job is to audit, investigate, and inspect the tax system itself, as well as to prevent and detect fraud, waste, and abuse within the IRS and related entities. Last month, the TIGTA issued a report with a bland and vague title: A Concerted Effort Should Be Taken to Improve Federal Government Agency Tax Compliance. But that deceptively bureaucratic name masks a pretty outrageous conclusion:
"Federal agencies are exempt from paying Federal income taxes; however, they are not exempt from meeting their employment tax deposits and related reporting requirements. As of December 31, 2011, 70 Federal agencies with 126 delinquent tax accounts owed approximately $14 million in unpaid taxes. In addition, 18 Federal agencies had not filed or were delinquent in filing 39 employment tax returns. Federal agencies should be held to the same filing and paying standards as all American taxpayers."
Fourteen million bucks might not seem like a lot compared to our sixteen trillion dollar debt. But believe it or not, the problem is bad enough that the IRS has an entire unit, called the Federal Agency Delinquency ("FAD") Program, just to collect delinquent taxes from other federal agencies! How well do they do? Last month's report took a look at the December 2008 "FAD list" of 132 delinquent accounts to see what had happened through December, 2011. The TIGTA found that just 33% of those agencies had paid their employment taxes. 30% of those accounts were still open and unresolved, three years later. Even worse, 36% of those accounts had actually expired; meaning the IRS won't ever collect those balances.
That "FAD" unit sounds like a real pit bull, right? Well, they might be, if they had any leash. IRS Policy Statement 2-4 says the IRS can't assess interest or penalties against delinquent federal agencies. And even if they could, Comptroller General Opinion B-161457 says that the agencies aren't authorized to pay them!
You might ask yourself why it even matters whether the government pays taxes to itself. We've all heard that people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. That age-old advice seems especially appropriate here. We're in the home stretch of an election centered largely on the role we want entitlements to play in our society. And every time a federal agency short-changes its payroll tax obligation, it cheats the Social Security and Medicare trust funds of much-needed dollars. It hardly seems controversial to ask Uncle Sam to set the best example possible!
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