Congress is considering allowing the Internal Revenue Service to report on taxpayers’ tax debts to consumer credit bureaus.

The Government Accountability Office provided a report Wednesday to Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Charles Grassley, R-Iowa., on the factors for considering a congressional proposal to report tax debts to credit bureaus. The report noted that millions of individual and business taxpayers owe billions of dollars in unpaid federal tax debts—$373 billion as of the end of fiscal year 2011, including $258 billion in individual debt and $115 billion in business debt—and the IRS expends substantial resources trying to collect these debts.

Unlike many other debts owed to the federal government, tax debts are not directly reported to the credit bureaus that collect and sell information about the credit history of individuals and businesses. The IRS is not allowed to directly report tax debt information to credit bureaus because long-standing federal law protects the privacy of any personally identifiable information reported to or developed by the IRS. The IRS is, however, allowed to file tax liens on some tax debts. Tax liens become part of the public record, which can be picked up by credit bureaus and included in the credit history information they compile

Among the potential reasons for directly reporting tax debt information to credit bureaus are the possibility that it could increase revenue by encouraging tax debtors to pay off their debts and the possibility that it could give the users of credit bureau information a more complete picture of the indebtedness of tax debtors. A proposal could conceivably encompass all tax debts or specify types of tax debts for such reporting. “However, the tradeoffs that directly reporting tax debts to credits bureaus would entail are not well understood, and you asked us to provide information about such tradeoffs by applying our recently published guide for assessing proposals to authorize disclosures of tax information,” said the GAO.

How much of this debt would be suitable to report to credit bureaus could depend on the purpose of the reporting proposal, such as to collect more debts or simply to inform other potential creditors of the existence of tax debts, the GAO noted. Most debts are relatively small in size. Well over half of individuals and businesses with tax debts owed less than $5,000.

However, much of the aggregate debt is concentrated among those owing relatively large amounts. Debts over $25,000 add up to a total of $310 billion. Some debts were in the collection process, where the IRS notifies the taxpayer of the debt, and were subject to dispute by the taxpayer, while other debts were covered by installment agreements. Approximately $60 billion of the debts owed were in these two categories. About $110 billion of the total debt was classified by IRS as uncollectable. IRS files tax liens on some tax debts and these liens are public records that credit bureaus routinely pick up and add to their data. Over half of the total amount owed was subject to liens, cutting across the above categories.

Subject matter experts consulted by the GAO commented that issues surrounding data accuracy, alternatives, and the expected benefits would be among the important factors that Congress might wish to consider in regards to any possible future proposal to report tax debts to credit bureaus.

“One key factor discussed was the need to ensure that any reported tax debt data is accurate and current as this would be important to both credit bureaus and the affected taxpayers, who could be denied credit, employment, or housing based on inaccurate negative information in their credit histories,” said the GAO.

Several subject matter specialists who the GAO spoke to said that it would be important to consider the IRS’s current use of tax liens, which are already known to credit bureaus, as an alternative to reporting debts directly. Another important consideration would be the expected benefits of direct tax debt reporting. These experts suggested that such reporting could yield benefits such as increased revenue collected or reduced tax debt inventory.

However, the National Taxpayer Advocate cautioned that such reporting could cause some taxpayers to choose not to file or file inaccurately if they know they owe money to the IRS.

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