IRS bank account monitoring seems doomed to fail, but agency could grow

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President Biden’s $ 1.75 trillion spending plan to build better, unveiled on October 28, includes many agenda items Democrats are committed to, ranging from expanding child care to children to unprecedented support for green energy.

But one proposal that remained on the cutting room floor was a controversial plan to provide the Internal Revenue Service with more information about Americans’ banking transactions.

A Treasury Department proposal presented earlier this year was designed to track aggregate deposits and withdrawals in and out of millions of personal and business financial accounts. The goal was to reduce the country’s tax gap, estimated at $ 600 billion per year. The spread reflects what Americans are legally supposed to pay, but don’t. It is a factor that contributes to the increase in federal deficits.

While wealthy tax evaders were the target, critics say the proposal, if passed, could have caused problems for middle- and low-income Americans as well. The controversial plan has raised concerns about the IRS’s privacy and overbreadth.

The backlash did not abate even after the Treasury reduced the scope of the proposal in early October to apply to bank and other financial accounts with balances of $ 10,000 and over, from an initial threshold of $ 600. A recent letter signed by 21 Democratic members of Congress opposing the plan may have sealed his fate.

Yet until the end, administration officials dug, trying to counter what they claimed was a disinformation campaign funded by special interest groups.

What was in the deleted proposal?

The Treasury Department originally wanted banks, credit unions, and other financial service providers to submit information to the IRS on the total inflows and outflows of all accounts with balances over $ 600. As noted, amid the reviews this was changed to accounts with balances of $ 10,000 and above. Treasury officials insisted that the IRS would not receive details of individual transactions, but rather gross inflows and outflows.

The Treasury has also committed to exempting certain types of entry or exit, including wages, salaries, and monthly social security and pension deposits.

The idea was to give the IRS an idea of ​​why some taxpayers with modest income might post hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars in transactions. A person filing, say, $ 80,000 in taxable income with an account showing $ 40,000 in annual entries might not get much scrutiny, but someone claiming $ 80,000 in income with $ 10 million in deposits could do it. It could have raised a red flag for an IRS audit.

Raising the threshold to $ 10,000 would have excluded most employees, said Natasha Sarin, deputy assistant secretary in the Treasury Department, who discussed the proposal on Oct. 26 at a forum hosted by the Committee for a Budget responsible federal. She estimated that Americans have a median bank balance of around $ 2,000.

Why has the proposal been controversial?

There were many reasons why the proposal became a lightning rod.

Critics have claimed this would have allowed the government to glance at the financial transactions of virtually all Americans, despite the insistence of Treasury officials that only aggregate deposits and withdrawals be tracked and, as reported. , only for accounts with a balance greater than $ 10,000.

In addition, there were doubts whether the IRS could adequately protect all of this data, especially in light of the tax records of 25 wealthy Americans leaked earlier this year, such as published in ProPublica reports.

Confidentiality concerns were cited in the letter signed by 21 Democratic members of Congress who opposed the plan.

“The data that would be sent to the IRS is too broad and raises significant privacy concerns,” the letter said. “We have little information on how the IRS plans to protect or use this huge mine of data.”

Impact on financial companies

Banks, credit unions, mortgage services and other financial entities were also cold to the idea. They faced more work and responsibilities, although how much more was a matter of debate.

The Treasury Department noted that financial companies already have access to this information. The companies reportedly reported the additional data on an expanded 1099-INT form. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the forms would include a box for total deposits or inflows and a box for total withdrawals or outflows.

Banks, credit unions and other financial entities are very sophisticated in their IT capabilities and could have managed them, Sarin said.

Yet financial firms did not see it that way. “There are a variety of (codes) to identify these payments,” said Ryan Donovan, executive vice president of CUNA, the Credit Union National Association, with reference to salaries. “There is no universal way to identify them.”

For example, direct salary deposits can be straightforward, he said in an interview, but what about paper checks or company reimbursement of employee expenses, let alone income? from odd jobs?

Another concern was that the proposal may have undermined efforts to reduce the number of unbanked Americans – people without conventional accounts who instead rely on payday loans, check cashing equipment and other alternatives. expensive.

“A proposal like this sets back those efforts so much,” Donovan said. “It discourages people who are already skeptical of banks and government.”

What shall we do now?

Biden’s spending plan left out the increased requirement to report bank transactions, but it still includes other measures to strengthen the IRS, increase income for the rich, and narrow the tax gap. The plan would also upgrade the agency’s aging computer systems, some of which date from the 1960s, Sarin said.

The administration maintains that regular employees pay almost all of the taxes they owe, with a compliance rate of 99%, largely because their income is reported by employers and other third parties on tax forms. .

In contrast, some wealthy Americans may hide part of their income. “Opaque” revenue sources for which there is no third-party report include sole proprietorships and partnerships, said Sarin, who described the issue as fundamentally a matter of fairness.

The Build Back Better program claims that the richest 1% of the nation’s earners are responsible for more than $ 160 billion in tax evasion each year.

The administration reiterated this week that verification rates will not increase for people earning less than $ 400,000 per year. But if the IRS receives more funding, it would have a greater ability to target taxpayers in higher income groups, even if tax authorities do not have detailed information on bank transactions to rely on.

Contact the reporter at [email protected].

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