More than a decade ago, a Republican-led Congress held a series of “show trials” designed to paint a picture of the Internal Revenue Service as intrusive, jackbooted thugs. It worked — at least well enough to convince Congress, which has since embarked on a decade-long trend of gradually defunding the IRS’s enforcement capabilities. But a new report from the General Accounting Office (GAO) is the latest indicator that the pendulum has swung too far toward defanging the IRS’s enforcement capabilities. The GAO report shows that a business form known as “widely held partnerships” is growing dramatically — and that the IRS is able to audit less than 1 percent of the very largest such firms.
Businesses that are partnerships are not subject to the corporate income tax. Instead, the profits are passed along to the partners, who pay personal income taxes on them. Under current rules, this means that when the IRS wants to audit the partnership’s tax filings, it must examine the tax returns of each of the organization’s partners — and levying an adjustment is similarly burdensome for the IRS. The largest such partnerships, including hedge funds and private equity firms, can have hundreds or even thousands of partners. Even an adequately funded IRS might understandably find it difficult to audit even the most blatant partnership tax dodger.
But of course, the IRS is not adequately funded.The agency has lost 10,000 employees since 2010, more than 30 percent of which worked in enforcement areas.
If the prospect of large partnerships being able to bank on the inability of the IRS to audit them sounds like trouble, it is: the revenue stakes are potentially huge. The GAO estimates that the largest partnerships had $69.1 billion in total net income in 2011 alone. Any aggressive tax avoidance practiced by these firms will have a real effect on our nation’s budget deficit.
In a statement on the report, Senator Carl Levin from Michigan said, “Auditing less than 1 percent of large partnership tax returns means the IRS is failing to audit the big money. It means over 99 percent of the hedge funds, private equity funds, master limited partnerships, and publicly traded partnerships in this country, some of which earn tens of billions each year, are audit-free.”
Astonishingly, both President Barack Obama and outgoing House Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp have proposed sensible (partial) solutions to this problem. Both propose to allow the IRS to audit partnerships at the entity level, the same way they audit publicly traded corporations. Sadly, neither has proposed to completely reverse the damaging loss of IRS audit capacity caused by recent budget cuts.
Unfortunately, Camp’s proposal is embedded within a larger tax plan that altogether would result in a massive $1.7 trillion dollar deficit and make the tax code more regressive. Congress should enact the specific reform that would address the problem with partnerships now, on its own.