The House Ways and Means Committee approved a bill (H.R. 3056) on Wednesday that would end the IRS's use of private debt collectors after its current contracts with collection agencies expire in March 2008. The IRS's private debt collection program pays contractors a commission of 21 to 24 cents for every dollar of tax debt that they recover, while it's estimated that IRS employees can do the job for about 3 cents for every dollar collected. The private contractors are paid on a commission unlike IRS employees, so there is a concern among many that they have an incentive to be overly aggressive and less respectful of taxpayers' privacy rights, a concern echoed by Nina Olson, the National Taxpayer Advocate.
Unfortunately, earlier efforts to kill the program in an appropriation bill failed on procedural grounds. Part of problem stems from a peculiar wrinkle in the pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) rules that were revived earlier this year by Congress. Ending the private debt collection program counts as a "cost" to the federal government under these rules, since the private agencies are expected to collect over a billion dollars over the next decade if the program is allowed to continue. As a result, the Ways and Means bill just approved includes over a billion dollars of revenue-raising provisions to offset the "cost." The biggest offset would collect $764 million over ten years by making it harder for people to get out of paying their federal taxes by renouncing their U.S. citizenship.
But it's absurd that killing the private debt collection program should have to be paid for. Cutting funds for traditional tax collection by the IRS is not counted as a "cost" under budget rules that Congress has to offset with revenue-raising provisions. And traditional tax collectors at the IRS bring in a whole lot more money than these private contractors ever will. The legislative recommendations made by the National Taxpayer Advocate in January start out by noting that on a budget of just over $10 billion the IRS manages to collect over two trillion dollars, a return-on-investment of about 210 to one.
In the Senate, a bill (S. 335) sponsored by Byron Dorgan (D-ND) would end the private debt collection program, but it's not clear when this bill will be considered.