Empowering the IRS Via Bailout

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It seems that the bailout bill has not just raised the indebtedness of every American by more than $2,000. It also further empowers the IRS, as though that organization needed power.


IRS undercover operations: Privacy invasion?
The bailout bill also gives the Internal Revenue Service new authority to conduct undercover operations. It would immunize the IRS from a passel of federal laws, including permitting IRS agents to run businesses for an extended sting operation, to open their own personal bank accounts with U.S. tax dollars, and so on. (Think IRS agents posing as accountants or tax preparers and saying, “I’m not sure if that deduction is entirely legal, but it’ll save you $1,000. Want to take it?”) That section had expired as of January 1, 2008, and would now be renewed.

Starting with the so-called Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1988, the IRS has possessed this authority temporarily, with occasional multiple-year lapses. A 1999 internal report said the IRS had 126 “trained undercover agents” working in field offices at the time. This is the first time that such undercover authority would be made permanent.

Sens. Max Baucus (D) and Chuck Grassley (R) have been pushing to make it permanent for a while, claiming (PDF) in April that: “Undercover operations are an integral part of IRS efforts to detect and prove noncompliance. The temporary status of this provision creates uncertainty, as the IRS plans its undercover efforts from year to year.”

There’s another section of the bailout bill worth noting. It lets the IRS give information from individual tax returns to any federal law enforcement agency investigating suspected “terrorist” activity, which can, in turn, share it with local and state police. Intelligence agencies such as the CIA and the National Security Agency can also receive that information.

The information that can be shared includes “a taxpayer’s identity, the nature, source, or amount of his income, payments, receipts, deductions, exemptions, credits, assets, liabilities, net worth, tax liability, tax withheld, deficiencies, overassessments, or tax payments, whether the taxpayer’s return was, is being, or will be examined or subject to other investigation or processing, or any other data received by, recorded by, prepared by, furnished to, or collected by the Secretary with respect to a return.”

That provision had already existed in federal law and automatically expired on January 1, 2008.

What’s a little odd is that there’s been little to no discussion of the IRS sections of the bailout bill, even though they raise privacy concerns. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said this week: “I will continue to work with congressional leaders to find a way forward to pass a comprehensive plan to stabilize our financial system and protect the American people by limiting the prospects of further deterioration in our economy.” He never mentioned the necessity of additional IRS undercover operations.

9:04 pm on October 3, 2008