In an effort to decrease the widening national debt and tax gap, the General Accounting Office is recommending that Congress and the IRS consider revoking and denying passports to those who owe tax debts to the Federal government.
With the Nation’s debt approaching $14 trillion and the tax gap, in 2001 numbers, at $345 billion annually, the GAO is recommending using trusted debt collection methods to collect on past due tax debts. Currently, the Department of State currently screens passport holders and applicants for past due child support. Since 1998, over $200 million has been collected on overdue child support payments. The GAO thinks the IRS can collect even by setting up a collection function in the international terminal at the airport.
How much can be collected from denying and revoking passports?The GAO estimates that at least 1% of all passports issued in 2008, or 224,000 Americans, owe back taxes. The total owed: in excess of $5.8 billion. The GAO studied just the 2008 passports issued and suspects that there is substantially more in unpaid taxes from these individuals, especially because those who owed also had significant unassessed liabilities due to unfiled tax returns. The GAO only studied passport activity for one year. They suspect a multi-year investigation would find even more debtors passing through the airport checkpoints.
Other GAO findingsThe GAO also selectively looked into several tax debtors/internation passengers to get a clear picture of potential abusive and criminal tax activity. What they found was startling. The GAO found that abusive and criminal tax debtors were passing freely past United States borders, without consequence. Even more alarming was that the IRS was not pursuing several of them for their unpaid taxes. In a selected sample of 25 debtors who were issued passports and owed:
- two had worked under State Department contracts
- six of the 25 were or are under criminal investigation by the IRS
- ten had prior federal indictments or convictions
GAO’s proposalThe GAO recommends that the IRS, Congress and the Executive Branch study the possibility of collecting taxes through the State Department and the Passport Denial Program. The IRS already successfully collects back child support, unpaid social security repayments, and overdue student loans through garnished refunds via the Treasury Offset Program. Why not turn it around and let other agencies collect back taxes. The IRS already levies tax debtors through the Federal Levy Payment Program that collects back taxes through the Social Security Administration and the federal payments system.
The Problem: IRS taxpayer privacy limitationsThe IRS is effective in taking information from other governmental agencies. However, under section 6103 of the Internal Revenue Code, it is limited in what it can disclose to others. The GAO points out that taxpayer information cannot be shared with outside agencies, except as allowed by law. Generally, this disclosure has been limited to sharing certain tax information with State taxing authorities for tax administration and child support enforcement. For the most part, the IRS cannot disclose tax information without the consent of the taxpayer.
The GAO pointed out that the IRS could not even disclose sensitive taxpayer information on those tax debtors working for the State Department, even though these individuals may be performing sensitive work requiring security clearances. Two individuals who were studied were actually committing identity theft on deceased individuals. The IRS was even precluded from disclosing these names to the State Department directly.
The AnswerStep #1: Change section 6103 to allow the IRS to share information with the State Department.
Step #2: Engage IRS collections through the Passport Denial Program
The GAO concluded that the IRS, Congress and the Executive Branch should consider overcoming the section 6103 hurdles and start collecting through the State Department. The GAO stated: if Congress is serious on collecting the $330 billion in unpaid federal taxes, change the law that restricts the IRS from collecting on those with passports. Then, use the information to collect through the Passport Denial Program.
What’s next?This is a realistic proposal from the GAO. With the IRS looking for creative collection alternatives, it is quite likely that they will consider this option. Consider that the IRS has been using several alternatives lately, from pressing former tax havens to share tax information to help with tax administration to requesting outside collection agencies (albeit unsuccessful) to collect for the IRS. The IRS is also getting pressure to use outside information to collect on more government contractors that owe debts.
Clearly, with a growing national debt, collecting tax debt from those getting screened at the airport would be an efficient use of government resources. The government could use existing technology and information systems without much additional cost – a win-win situation.
My prediction: look for legislation soon and for the IRS to start collecting taxes through the Department of State. With more demands to collect taxes and no additional resources in the foreseeable future, the IRS must use current information systems and government programs to close the tax gap.