Tax losses pose a special problem for the federal fisc. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first some set-up as to how tax noncompliance differs on the income side versus the deduction and credit side. The overall purposes of this post are to address some questions I’ve gotten and pull together some tax enforcement themes that are implicated by the recent NY Times reporting on Pres. Trump’s returns.
The Importance of Third-Party Reporting
A lot of tax noncompliance occurs with respect to income. Not for folks with mainly wage and salary income who maybe earn a little bit of interest from a bank account. All of that is reported by third parties (the payors) to the IRS, on information returns like Form W-2 or Form 1099. The taxpayer/payee receives a copy the information return and that both simplifies reporting and communicates what information the IRS has about the transaction. As Joe Dugan and I argue in a forthcoming article, third-party reporting is very effective. With the IRS able to do simple return matching to catch any incorrect reporting (intentional or otherwise), IRS figures like this bar graph show that there’s not a lot of noncompliance where there’s substantial third-party information reporting.
Where much tax noncompliance occurs is with respect to income earned by the self-employed and small businesses, where there’s much less third-party reporting and also more use of untraceable cash. (I added the red circle to the IRS image below.)
For the last several months, I’ve been meeting a guitarist and sometimes other musicians at a Chicago park to play outdoor socially-distanced jazz. This Sunday, driving home, my wife asked me if we knew what Trump had paid in taxes. “Of course not,” I confidently responded. “It looks like we do now,” she said.
And with that, my work goals for this week changed. I’m sure everybody reading this has seen Sunday’s New York Times story (and probably also its follow-up from yesterday). Along with a ton of other tax people, I’ve been trying to make sense of and contextualize the story, both to myself and to the public. And I’ve largely been doing my thinking in real-time on Twitter.[fn1]
I thought that I’d assemble a lot of those Twitter threads here into one place. At most I’ll lightly edit them and I’ll link to the actual threads on Twitter, too. Because over there I included GIFs on almost every tweet and I think I outdid myself. The relevant content will be here, though. Continue reading “#TrumpTaxReturns”→
As we’re all acutely aware, in his presidential campaign, Donald Trump flouted decades of history by refusing to release his tax returns. And given that (a) the history was based on norms, not law, and (b) the Republican-controlled Congress did nothing to enforce the norms (or transform them into law), he continued to flout that norm throughout the first two years of his presidency.
By now I’m sure you’ve read the New York Times story about the Trump gift tax evasion (or, if not that story—which is really, really long—at least a summary of it). There is a lot in there, and I suspect it’ll inspire more than a couple posts here, but I wanted to lead off with the statute of limitations.
Because let’s be real: I’ve always thought of the statute of limitations as being three years or, if you substantially understate your gross income, six years, unless you don’t file a return, in which case it runs forever until you file a return. Since most of the alleged fraud occurred in the 1990s or earlier, even the longer statute would be long passed.
With all the diversions this week, it was easy to miss that the House Committee on Appropriations posted on June 28th the Appropriations Bill for FY 2018. The bill seems to include a couple items that not many were expecting. So, I thought I would highlight some of the key provisions. Since it is Friday before a Holiday weekend, I’ll keep it short for now. There are four main provisions I will address: (1) IRS Targeting/Johnson Amendment; (2) ACA Penalties; (3) Conservation Easements; and (4) 2704 (Estate/Gift Tax).
Trump signed his Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty executive order earlier today. The EO was expected to order the IRS to stop enforcing the so-called Johnson Amendment against religious organizations. As Ben explained, by its language, it may have done significantly less—it appears to merely reaffirm the status quo for enforcement. Whatever its substantive effects, though, the existence of the order is no surprise, and, as has happened with any number of Trump’s previous EOs, the ACLU Freedom From Religion Foundation has already announced that it will challenge the EO in court. [Update: the ACLU looked at the EO and agreed with Ben that there was nothing there, and decided not to sue. The FFRF, otoh, decided to sue. So it’s the FFRF that will face these procedural hurdles before it has to face the substantive (or rather, lack of substance) ones.]
As the world braces for the upcoming Executive Order from President Trump,
I wanted to take a minute and describe the Johnson Amendment. Later today, after the actual Executive Order is made public, Ben Leff will be writing up a more through post.
A couple of months ago President Donald Trump told the audience at the National Prayer Breakfast that he would “get rid of and totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment. Which raises the question: what is the Johnson Amendment. Because he brought it up at the National Prayer Breakfast, it also leads to the question of how does affects churches.
In 1954, without explanation, Lyndon Johnson proposed a small amendment to the tax law governing tax-exempt organizations: forbid them from endorsing or opposing candidates for office. One of the few consistent talking points during president-elect Donald Trump’s campaign was that this so-called “Johnson Amendment” should be repealed; since comprehensive tax reform is part of Trump’s plan for his first 100 days in office, the repeal may happen immediately. Continue reading “What is the Johnson Amendment?”→
Honestly, we have no way of knowing. For one thing, we don’t know how much Trump currently pays in taxes. For another, the plan he has provided is less a plan than it is a shopping list, a shopping list that’s really light on details. But we can at least make a guess. (Spoiler alert: he probably won’t.) Continue reading “Under His Plan, Will Trump’s Taxes Go Up?”→
The President’s one-page tax plan, released on Wednesday, claims that it will “[p]rovide relief to American families – especially middle income families.” Whether tax reform eventually lives up to the President’s claim, though, will depend on how he and the Congress choose to address not only tax rates and the standard deduction, but also the personal exemption and credits related to children and dependents.
Like the Republican blueprint for tax reform, the President’s plan would double the standard deduction while trimming itemized deductions. It also would expand the credit for child and dependent care, although the plan doesn’t specify how.
Notably, the Republican proposal would eliminate personal exemptions provided by § 151, which allow a deduction of $4,050 per dependent in 2017. Dependents include a taxpayer’s spouse, children, and other members of the household who rely family support. Although the repeal of § 151 was not specifically mentioned in the President’s proposal, the President and Congress must reach consensus on how to reduce the cost of tax reform. Eliminating personal exemptions in favor of an expanded standard deduction may be an approach on which both could agree, but it may not be good policy. Continue reading “How Will Trump’s Tax Plan Affect Middle-Income Families?”→
Today President Trump’s top tax advisors laid out the first details of the his tax plan. Chief economic adviser Gary Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin unveiled the plan which according to Fox News, Cohn called “the most significant tax reform legislation since 1986, and one of the biggest tax cuts in American history.”
Oh, did I mention that the details of the biggest cuts were printed on a single sheet of paper?
There has been plenty of ink (and jokes) already spilled about the plan. For example, you can read Richard Rubin of the WSJ (here) or Alan Rappeport of the NY Times (here). The long and the short of the plan is it seems to very very costly. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget guesses it could cost $3 to $7 trillion with their estimate at $5.5 trillion. That is a lot of money!
Aren’t we all wondering what President Trump’s big tax reform announcement will be tomorrow? Loyola Los Angeles Tax LL.M. student Anosh Ali ventured a tongue-in-cheek guess in a short memo he wrote in Katie Pratt’s Tax Policy class. We’ll see tomorrow how good a prognosticator Anosh is.
Until then, at least we know that his Presidential ‘voice’ is spot on
TO: President Trump
FROM: Anosh Ali, White House Communications Specialist
Okay, maybe it wasn’t entirely a bombshell; in our leak–happy environment, it was almost inevitable that we’d eventually see some of Trump’s returns. And this barely counts as a return: it’s just his Form 1040 from 2005 (that is, the first two pages of a return). When I grade voluntary presidential candidate tax disclosures, one year’s Form 1040 realistically gets you a D+; the 1040 says how much you ultimately paid in taxes, but very little more than that. (For example, you can see that Trump had itemized deductions of just over $17 million, but you can’t tell what itemized deductions he took. I mean, is it mortgage interest? state and local taxes? charitable contributions? some combination? Without the full return, we have no way of knowing.) Continue reading “Did Rachel Maddow Break the Law? #TrumpTaxReturns”→
Today’s Tax Notesreports[fn1] that the IRS has announced that it will not release pretty much any new formal guidance (including revenue rulings and revenue procedures) for the foreseeable future.[fn2]
A week and a half ago, David entered the debate about Trump’s potential problem with the Emoluments Clause. He pointed out that, whether or not Trump’s business interests would run afoul of the Emoluments Clause, any divestiture of assets would probably trigger a significant tax liability. (We don’t know exactly what that would be, but given that many of his assets are real property interests, he has probably been depreciating them, so even if they haven’t appreciated in value, his adjusted basis is probably significantly lower than the fair market value of the assets. So when he sells them, the sale will probably trigger a significant taxable gain.) Continue reading “Trump’s Emoluments Tax Problem, Part Two”→
Republicans on Capitol Hill are reportedly planning to use the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process to repeal the Affordable Care Act and overhaul the tax code. Against that background, Sam Wice says that “the most powerful person in America” in 2017 will be Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, the nonpartisan official who will “determine” how much of their agenda Republicans can pass through reconciliation. This, of course, is an exaggeration: like it or not, the most powerful person in America in 2017 will be Donald J. Trump, who will wield all the power of the imperial presidency. But Wice’s post helpfully directs our attention to the budget reconciliation process, the rules of which quite likely will determine whether the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill can repeal the ACA and reform the tax laws.
Yet while one should not underestimate the importance of reconciliation, one should also not overestimate the power of the Parliamentarian in the reconciliation process. As a formal matter, the Parliamentarian’s role is advisory; and as a practical matter, the Parliamentarian has little say over significant aspects of reconciliation. Other actors—most notably, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wy.)—wield at least as much influence as the Parliamentarian. Most importantly, Enzi—not MacDonough—will determine whether the provisions in any reconciliation bill violate various rules against deficit-increasing legislation being passed via reconciliation. And unlike the Parliamentarian, the Budget Committee Chairman is very hard to fire.
Reconciliation measures can begin in either or both chambers. However, since the ultimate vote on the budget measure occurs in the Senate, we’ll focus on the Senate side of the reconciliation process for purposes of this discussion. On the House side, the Rules Committee Chair and the Budget Committee Chair will wield outsized influence as well. We expect Pete Sessions (R-Tex.) to stay on as House Rules Committee Chair; as for the House Budget Committee Chair, the race is on for a replacement to Tom Price, the Georgia Republican recently tapped as Trump’s Health and Human Services Secretary.