The authors are former U.S. Treasury secretaries. Mr. Geithner and Mr. Lew served under President Barack Obama, Mr. Paulson under President George W. Bush, and Mr. Rubin and Mr. Summers under President Bill Clinton.
Six hundred billion dollars per year, and growing: That is two-thirds of total nondefense discretionary spending by the federal government, about what is spent on defense operations, military personnel and procurement, and more than mandatory federal expenditures on Medicaid. It’s also approximately how much unpaid taxes cost the U.S. government. This must change, and it can.
The five of us served as Treasury secretary under three presidents, both Republican and Democrat, representing 17 years of experience at the helm of the department. While we are not in agreement on many areas of tax policy, we believe in the importance of strengthening the tax system to do more to collect legally owed but uncollected taxes — which, left unaddressed, could total $7 trillion over the next decade. We are convinced by the strength of our experiences that more can be done to pursue evasion in the ways outlined by President Biden’s recent proposal to increase the resources and information available to the I.R.S.
Over the past 25 years, I.R.S. resources have been steadily cut, with the ratio of enforcement funding to returns filed falling by around 50 percent. Today, the I.R.S. has fewer auditors than at any time since World War II. Faced with resource constraints, it is no surprise that the agency is not able to appropriately focus scrutiny on complex returns, where noncompliance is greatest. Of about four million partnership returns filed in 2018, the I.R.S. audited only 140 of them. It did not pursue 300 high-income taxpayers who together cost the agency $10 billion in unpaid taxes over a three-year period when they failed to even file returns. And audit rates of those in the top 1 percent have fallen most staggeringly over the course of the past decade, such that rural counties in the Deep South have some of the highest rates of examination in the country.