Tax Day Bill Approved by the House Would End IRS's Use of Private Debt Collectors

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The House of Representatives approved a bill on "tax day" that would end the IRS's use of private debt collection agencies to locate unpaid taxes. The Taxpayer Assistance and Simplification Act of 2008 (H.R. 5719) would ban the federal government from entering into new contracts with the private collectors and the extension of the existing contracts with two companies. (A third company, a scandal-plagued firm based in Texas, was dropped from the program for reasons the IRS would not make public). Similar legislation was passed by the House last year but the Senate did not act.

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 basis 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.

In the Senate, Byron Dorgan (D-ND) has introduced legislation (S. 335), with 23 cosponsors, that would end the private debt collection program. However, the Senate Finance Committee chaired by Max Baucus (D-MT) has not yet acted, and the committee's ranking Republican, Charles Grassley (R-IA) has been particularly vocal about allowing the private debt collection companies, one of which is based in his state, to continue the work for IRS.

The Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation have estimated that ending the private debt collection program will cost over half a billion dollars over a decade (since that's the net revenue the private companies would collect if allowed to continue). Of course IRS employees could collect much more for the same level of funding, but the budget "scoring" process does not treat funding for the IRS in a manner that accounts for the vast return on every dollar spent on tax collection.

As a result, the House had to come up with provisions that would raise revenue to offset the costs of the bill. One would require that people using money from a health savings account (HSA) provide more evidence that the money was used for a medical expense. HSAs, introduced as part of the Medicare prescription drug law in 2003, are accounts to which individuals can make tax-deductible contributions and which are connected with a high-deductible health insurance plan (plans with deductibles of at least $1,050 for an individual or $2,100 for a family). One fear health care advocates have about HSAs is that they will, over time, encourage healthier and wealthier people to leave the traditional health insurance market, which will make health insurance even less affordable for those at-risk workers and families who really need it. A fear tax fairness advocates have is that HSAs are just a way for better off people to shelter money from taxes. The deduction is worth the most to well-off families who will likely have health insurance with or without a tax incentive.

Another revenue-raising provision in the bill would close a tax loophole that is used by Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR), which until last year was a subsidiary of Halliburton. As we explained a month ago, KBR used the loophole to avoid hundreds of millions of dollars in federal Social Security and Medicare taxes by pretending its Iraq-based employees are working for a Cayman-Islands based "shell company."

Both of these are provisions that would be worthy even if Congress was not trying to raise revenue and they make the overall bill even more praiseworthy. Predictably, the President has threatened again to veto any legislation that ends the private debt collection program, in line with a pattern of positions that choose the private sector over the public sector even in situations in which the latter is able to operate far more efficiently.

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