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A new report from the IRS estimates that individuals and businesses failed to pay $385 billion of the taxes they owed in a single year — a figure that many experts believe is an understatement. This comes just months after Congress cut funding for IRS enforcement activities that could recoup those dollars.

The IRS report estimates that taxpayers paid $450 billion less than was owed in 2006 and that the IRS eventually recovered $65 billion of that, leaving a net “tax gap” of $385 billion — which is roughly 14.5 percent of all taxes due.

As CTJ director Bob McIntyre explained in his testimony before the Senate Budget Committee a few years ago, he and other tax experts have long thought that the tax gap is actually larger than what the IRS estimates, particularly the portion that results from income hidden in offshore tax havens.

The IRS is less able to counter this type of tax evasion than it was in the past. Congress drastically slashed the IRS budget in the 1990s with the rationale that the agency was a bother to taxpayers. But another report released today by the National Taxpayer Advocate (a Bush appointee) concludes that the paltry budget for the IRS is itself the source of irritation for taxpayers who are affected by the various short-cuts the IRS must take in administering the tax system with fewer staff.

The more fundamental problem with the tax gap is that it means the vast majority of Americans, who pay the taxes they owe, are effectively subsidizing those who do not.

Most middle-income working people don’t have many opportunities to evade taxes because their employers report their wages to the IRS and withhold a portion of them for taxes. On the other hand, corporations and business owners are responsible for a majority of the tax gap.

For example, underreporting of business income, corporate income, and compensation by self-employed individuals together make up a majority of the tax gap, according to the IRS report.

Congress’s cuts to IRS funding are bizarre because this is one type of government spending that pays for itself several times over. In some cases a dollar of additional IRS funding can generate $200 of revenue. In other words, lawmakers have forced cuts to the IRS budget knowing full well that this is one type of spending cut that actually increases the budget deficit.

In addition to restoring IRS funding, there are other measures that Congress can take to increase income reporting and crack down on institutions that facilitate offshore tax evasion, as McIntyre called for in his testimony. Most of those proposals have still not been enacted, partly because they’re opposed by the Tax Cheaters Lobby.

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