IRS to the rescue? Tax audits eyed for infrastructure cash

FILE - In this photo March 22, 2013 file photo, the exterior of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) building in Washington. Lawmakers are increasingly looking at boosting the IRS to help pay for infrastructure improvements. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
FILE - In this photo March 22, 2013 file photo, the exterior of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) building in Washington. Lawmakers are increasingly looking at boosting the IRS to help pay for infrastructure improvements. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File) (Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

WASHINGTON – Republicans say they won’t raise taxes on corporations. Democrats say they won't raise taxes on people making less than $400,000 a year. So who is going to pay for the big public works boost that lawmakers and President Joe Biden say is necessary for the country?

Enter the IRS.

Biden is proposing that Congress build up the depleted and often-maligned agency, saying that a more aggressive collection of unpaid taxes could help cover the cost of his multitrillion-dollar plan to boost infrastructure, families and education. More resources to boost audits of businesses, estates and the wealthy would raise $700 billion over 10 years, the White House estimates.

It's just the latest idea emerging in the bipartisan talks over an infrastructure bill, which saw Biden huddle at the White House this week with congressional leaders and a group of Republican senators. The GOP senators, touting a $568 billion infrastructure plan of their own, said they were “encouraged” by the discussion with Biden, but all sides acknowledged that how to pay for the public works plan remains a difficult problem.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Biden brought up his IRS proposal as he met Wednesday with the top four congressional leaders.

“My understanding is it’s at least $1 trillion, it could be a trillion-and-quarter, a trillion-and-a-half dollars of illegally, unpaid taxes in the country,” Pelosi said. “Part of the answer is to beef up the IRS so they could take in those taxes, and that’s a big chunk. That could go a long way.”

She was referring to the tax gap, which is the difference between taxes paid and taxes owed. In a politically charged climate, there isn’t agreement on how big the tax gap is, let alone how much of it could be captured. But it's a tantalizing target for lawmakers, raising the potential to raise hundreds of billions in revenue without needing to raise taxes at all.

The question is how big the tax gap really is — and how much it can realistically be closed.