Tag: IRS

The IRS Can’t Overrule the Supreme Court

Since the foundational administrative law case of Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council (1984), courts have given significant deference to executive agency interpretations of federal law. United States v. Home Concrete & Supply tests whether there are any meaningful limits on such deference.

The case involves a group of taxpayers who initiated a number of transactions designed to reduce their tax liability by allowing a financial entity they created, Home Concrete, to increase its tax basis and reduce its taxable gain from the sale of certain assets. In June 2003, the IRS ruled that the taxpayers’ use of Home Concrete in this way was improper and issued an adjustment to their tax return (requiring payment of back-taxes). Having missed the standard three-year limit for such actions, however, the IRS argued that the adjustment was timely under a tax-code provision that extends the statute of limitations to six years if the taxpayer “omits from gross income an amount properly includible therein which is in excess of 25 percent of the amount of gross income stated in the return.”

Despite the Supreme Court’s having long ago held otherwise, Colony v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue (1956), the IRS argues that an overstatement of basis qualifies as an omission under that tax provision. Further, during the course of this litigation, the Treasury Department issued a new regulation “clarifying” the provision in a way that supports the IRS’s argument. The IRS now argues that this new regulation is controlling and should be retroactively applied to Home Concrete’s 1999 returns.

After (mostly) winning at the district court, the IRS lost before the Fourth Circuit and asked the Supreme Court to review the case—which involves one of many similar applications of the relevant tax provisions. The Court took the case and now Cato has joined the National Federation of Independent Business on an amicus brief supporting the taxpayers, arguing that sanctioning this sort of ad hoc rule-making would undermine the rule of law and the separation of powers.

We note that “[t]he government’s position is that this regulation is due judicial deference” but the Supreme Court has “consistently held that where a statute has an unambiguous meaning, an agency’s contrary interpretation is not entitled to deference.” As Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson noted in his Fourth Circuit concurrence, “agencies are not a law unto themselves” and the government’s position in this case “seems to [be] something of an inversion of the universe and to pass the point where the beneficial application of agency expertise gives way to a lack of accountability and a risk of arbitrariness.”

In deciding Chevron, the Supreme Court surely never intended to undermine the very structure of the Republic and unleash an administrative state wholly a law unto itself.

The Supreme Court will hear United States v. Home Cincrete & Supply on January 17.

Obama Has United the World … in Opposition to Bad U.S. Tax Policy

Last year, I came up with a saying that “Bad Government Policy Begets More Bad Government Policy” and labeled it “Mitchell’s Law” during a bout of narcissism.

There are lots of examples of this phenomenon, such as the misguided War on Drugs being a precursor to intrusive, costly, and ineffective money laundering policies.

Or how about government healthcare subsidies driving up the price of healthcare, which then leads politicians to decide that there should be even more subsidies because healthcare has become more expensive.

But if you want a really stark example of Mitchell’s Law, the Internal Revenue Code is littered with examples.

The politicians created a nightmarishly complex tax system, for instance, and then decided that enforcing the wretched system required the erosion of civil liberties and constitutional freedoms.

The latest example of this process involves the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, a piece of legislation that was imposed in 2010 because politicians assumed they could collect lots of tax revenue every single year by getting money from so-called tax havens.

This FATCA law basically imposes a huge regulatory burden on all companies that have international transactions involving the United States, and all foreign financial institutions that want to invest in the United States. It is such a disaster that even the New York Times has taken notice, recently reporting that:

[T]he Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, or Fatca, as it is known, is now causing alarm among businesses outside the United States that fear they will have to spend billions of dollars a year to meet the greatly increased reporting burdens, starting in 2013. American expatriates also say the new filing demands are daunting and overblown.

…The law demands that virtually every financial firm outside the United States and any foreign company in which Americans are beneficial owners must register with the Internal Revenue Service, check existing accounts in search of Americans and annually declare their compliance. Noncompliance would be punished with a withholding charge of up to 30 percent on any income and capital payments the company gets from the United States.

…The I.R.S., under pressure from angry and confused financial officials abroad, has extended the deadline for registration until June 30, 2013, and is struggling to provide more detailed guidance by the end of this year. But beginning in 2012, many American expatriates — already the only developed-nation citizens subject to double taxation from their home government — must furnish the I.R.S. with detailed personal information on their overseas assets.

It’s worth noting at this point that FATCA only exists because of bad tax law. If the United States had a simple and fair flat tax, there would be no double taxation of income that is saved and invested. As such, the IRS wouldn’t have any reason to care whether Americans had bank accounts and/or investments in places such as London, Hong Kong, and Panama.

But as is so often the case with politicians, they chose not to fix bad policy and instead decided to impose one bad policy on top of another. Hence, the crowd in Washington enacted FATCA and sent the IRS on a jihad.

By the way, the New York Times was late to the party. Many other news outlets already have noticed that the United States is about to suffer a big self-inflicted economic wound.

Indeed, what’s remarkable about Obama’s FATCA policy is that the world in now united. But it’s not united for something big and noble, such as peace, commerce, prosperity, or human rights. Instead, it’s united in opposition to intrusive, misguided, and foolish American tax law.

Let’s look at some examples.

* From the United Kingdom, a Financial Times column warns, “This summer, the senior management of one of Asia’s largest financial groups is quietly mulling a potentially explosive question: could it organise some of its subsidiaries so that they could stop handling all US Treasury bonds? …What is worrying this particular Asian financial group is … a new law called the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act… [T]he new rules leave some financial officials fuming in places such as Australia, Canada, Germany, Hong Kong and Singapore. Little wonder. Never mind the fact that implementing these measures is likely to be costly. …Hence the fact that some non-US asset managers and banking groups are debating whether they could simply ignore Fatca by creating subsidiaries that never touch US assets at all. “This is complete madness for the US – America needs global investors to buy its bonds,” fumes one bank manager. “But not holding US assets might turn out to be the easiest thing for us to do.”

* From India, the Economic Times reports, “FATCA, or the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, will require overseas banks to report U.S. clients to the Internal Revenue Service, but its loose definition of who is a U.S. citizen will create a huge administrative burden and could push non-residents to slash their U.S. exposure, some bankers say. …Bankers say the scheme will be extremely costly to implement, and some say that as the legislation stands, any bank with a client judged to be a U.S. citizen will be also obliged to supply documentation on all other clients. ‘FATCA will cost 10 times to the banks than it will generate for the IRS. It is going to be extremely complicated,’ said Yves Mirabaud, managing partner at Mirabaud & Cie and Swiss Bankers Association board member.”

* Discussing the impact in Canada, Reuters notes, “The new regulation has drawn criticism from the world’s banks and business people about its reach and costs. …’Hundreds of millions of dollars spent on developing compliance processes to target Canadian citizens would not be a useful exercise, and they are, for the most part, people who actually have no tax liabilities because they do not earn income in the United States,’ [Canadian Finance Minister] Flaherty said.”

* A Taiwan news outlet said, “Taiwan’s domestic banks will reportedly reduce holdings of American bonds worth an estimated NT$100 billion (US$3.33 billion) due to the U.S. government’s recent decision to impose 30% tax on foreign-investment income in U.S. securities as bonds. Taiwan’s eight government-linked banks reportedly hold U.S. financial products worth over US$2 billion… On April 8, 2011, the U.S. government issued a notice advising foreign financial institutions to meet certain obligations under the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), under which foreign financial institutions are subject to complex reporting rules related to their U.S. accounts.”

* From the Persian Gulf, the Bahrain Daily News noted, “A US law … has drawn the criticism of the world’s banks and business people, who dismiss it as imperialist and ‘the neutron bomb of the global financial system.’ The unusually broad regulation, known as FATCA, or the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, makes the world’s financial institutions something of an extension of the tax-collecting Internal Revenue Service—something no other country does for its tax regime. …Even the European Commission has objected, and experts say other countries may create their own FATCA-style regimes for US banks or withdraw from US capital markets. In a barrage of letters to the Treasury, IRS and Congress, opponents from Australia to Switzerland to Hong Kong assail FATCA’s application to a broad swath of institutions and entities.”

* A story from Singapore finds, “For many years, thousands of foreign investors have put their money into American shares or other investments. Now, however, a somewhat obscure law called the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) may make investments in the United States for everyone, from billionaires to the man on the street, here in Singapore far less attractive. …[S]ome banks or investment managers may advise customers not to invest in the US. … ‘[P]rivate bankers are publicly advising their clients to clear their portfolios of all US securities’. A fund manager here told me his company is also advising clients to avoid US investments, and other companies may similarly start telling large clients as well as smaller ones the same story. Investors could then see recommendations not to invest in the US, and they may put their money elsewhere. …As consulting firm PwC said, ‘some institutions could decide that complying with the due diligence and verification provisions may not be cost effective’ so they may stop making investments in the US. Banks or other asset managers may similarly decide it is easier not to offer US investments than to try and comply with the FATCA.”

o From Switzerland, a story “about the backlash from United States expats and the financial sector to the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA)” reports that, “Growing numbers of American expatriates are renouncing their US citizenship over a controversial new tax law and ever more burdensome fiscal and reporting obligations. …[B]anks and business people who are supposed to enforce it on behalf of the US tax man are worried about its costly administrative burden… [I]t’s just too expensive. The consequence will be that they cut out US clients and stop investing in the US. …Three or four years ago no one talked about renouncing nationality – now it’s an open discussion. That’s a major shift in mentality.

o Writing about the reaction from Europe, one columnist noted, “FATCA encourages foreign financial institutions to limit their exposure to U.S. assets. In a joint letter to the Treasury and the IRS, the European Banking Federation and the Institute of International Bankers, which together represent most of the non-U.S. banks and securities firms that would be affected by FATCA, warned that ‘many [foreign financial institutions], particularly smaller ones or those with minimal U.S. investments or U.S. customers, will opt out of U.S. securities rather than enter into a direct contractual agreement with a foreign tax authority (the IRS) that imposes substantial new obligations and the significant reputational, regulatory, and financial risks of potentially failing those obligations.’ A widespread divestment of U.S. securities by institutions seeking to avoid the burdens of FATCA could have real and harmful effects on the U.S. economy.”

These press excerpts help demonstrate the costs of FATCA, but what about the benefits? After all, maybe the law will lead to lots of good results that offset the high regulatory costs and lost investment for the American economy.

Well, the only “benefit” anybody had identified is that FATCA will transfer more money from the productive sector of the economy to the government. Indeed, Obama argued during the 2008 campaign that cracking down on “tax havens” with proposals such as FATCA would give politicians lots of additional money to spend.

But when the legislation was approved in 2010, the Joint Committee on Taxation estimated that the new law would raise only $8.7 billion over 10 years, not the $100 billion that Obama claimed could be collected every single year. This video has some of the damning details.

One final point demands attention:

While it appears that the rest of the world is against FATCA, that’s not completely true. Some international bureaucrats in Paris, funded by American tax dollars, actually want the rest of the world to adopt the same Orwellian system. Here’s a blurb from the New York Times story:

Jeffrey Owens, a tax expert at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, said catching tax evaders was “a concern that many member countries share.” If countries could agree to new global reporting standards for exchanging information, he said, then “maybe there’s a way forward.”

In other words, the pinhead bureaucrats at the OECD think FATCA’s such a swell idea that they want to create a global network of tax police. So not only would America erode the sovereignty of other nations because of our bad tax law, but those other nations would be able to impose their bad tax law on income earned in America!

And just in case you think that’s just irresponsible demagoguery, it’s already beginning to happen. Check out this IRS regulation, proposed by the Obama administration, that would require American banks to put foreign law above American law.

Podcast: How States Can Shut Down ObamaCare

Here’s a podcast on how states can shut down ObamaCare.

And here are links to additional material, including an op-ed that provides an overview, a blog post about Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) getting involved, a blog post on how presidential candidates could get involved, and finally a blog post on what the Obama administration has to say about all this.

A Weak Defense of an Illegal Fix to an ObamaCare Glitch

In this November 16 op-ed, Jonathan Adler and I explain how the Obama administration is trying to save ObamaCare (“the Affordable Care Act”) by creating tax credits and government outlays that Congress hasn’t authorized.  (The administration describes this “premium assistance” solely as tax credits.)  This week, the administration tried to reassure everybody that no, they’re not doing anything illegal.

Here’s how IRS commissioner Douglas H. Shulman responded to a letter from two dozen members of Congress (emphasis added):

The statute includes language that indicates that individuals are eligible for tax credits whether they are enrolled through a State-based Exchange or a Federally-facilitated Exchange. Additionally, neither the Congressional Budget Office score nor the Joint Committee on Taxation technical explanation of the Affordable Care Act discusses excluding those enrolled through a Federally-facilitated Exchange.

And here is how HHS tried to dismiss the issue (emphasis added):

The proposed regulations issued by the Treasury Department, and the related proposed regulations issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, are clear on this point and supported by the statute. Individuals enrolled in coverage through either a State-based Exchange or a Federally-facilitated Exchange may be eligible for tax credits. …Additionally, neither the Congressional Budget Office score nor the Joint Committee on Taxation technical explanation discussed limiting the credit to those enrolled through a State-based Exchange.

These statements show that the administration’s case is weak, and they know it.

When government agencies say that a statute indicates they are allowed to do X, or that their actions are supported by that statute, it’s a clear sign that the statute does not explicitly authorize them to do what they’re trying to do. If it did, they would say so. (A Treasury Department spokeswoman offers a similarly worded rationale.)

In our op-ed, Adler and I explain why the statutory language to which these agencies refer does not create the sort of ambiguity that might enable the IRS to get away with offering premium assistance in federal Exchanges anyway. (Nor does the fact that the CBO and the JCT misread portions of this 2,000-page law create such ambiguity.) That’s because there is no ambiguity in that language. There is only a desperate search for ambiguity because the law clearly says what supporters don’t want it to say.

Finally, the fact that these two statements are so similar shows that the administration considers this glitch to be a serious problem and wants everyone on the same page.

Washington & Lee University law professor Timothy Jost is an ObamaCare supporter and a leading expert on the law.  He is also too honest for government service, for he has acknowledged that ObamaCare “clearly” does not authorize premium assistance in federal Exchanges, and that it is only “arguabl[e]” that federal courts will let the administration get away with offering it. (Again, in our op-ed, Adler and I explain why that argument falls flat.)

After reading the administration’s statements, Adler writes, ”If that’s all they got, they should be worried.”

FATCA Law Is a Nightmare for Cross-Border Economic Activity

One of the tax increases buried in Obamacare was an onerous and intrusive “1099″ scheme that would have required businesses to collect tax identification numbers for just about any vendor and then send paperwork to the IRS whenever they did more than $600 of business.

  • Send one of your sales people to New York for a couple of nights? They would have to get the tax ID for the hotel and submit a form to the IRS.
  • Buy a printer for the office? The printer company would need to provide a tax ID and the purchaser would have to submit a form to the IRS.
  • o Have a retirement dinner for somebody in the accounting department? Get the restaurant’s tax ID and submit another form to the IRS.

This system was seen as a nightmare, even leading to rather amusing cartoons mocking the law and showing how it would expand an already abusive IRS. And in a rare fit of common sense, the 1099 requirement was repealed earlier this year.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that an international version of Obamacare’s 1099 scheme also was enacted early last year. But since the burden is largely falling on foreigners, there’s no groundswell among voters to repeal the law – even though it will impose far more damage on the American economy.

Known as the FATCA (the acronym for the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act), this law was included as a revenue-raising provision to pay for one of Obama’s failed stimulus bills.

But while the bill didn’t create jobs, it has created a giant nightmare for all sorts of people and firms – including foreign financial institutions that may now decide that it’s no longer worth the trouble to invest in America.

Consider these excerpts from a shocking story in the Financial Times.

…one of Asia’s largest financial groups is quietly mulling a potentially explosive question: could it organise some of its subsidiaries so that they could stop handling all US Treasury bonds? Their motive has nothing to do with the outlook for the dollar. …Instead, what is worrying this particular Asian financial group is tax. In January 2013, the US will implement a new law called the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act. …the new rules leave some financial officials fuming in places such as Australia, Canada, Germany, Hong Kong and Singapore. …implementing these measures is likely to be costly; in jurisdictions such as Singapore or Hong Kong, the IRS rules appear to contravene local privacy laws. …Terry Campbell, head of Canada’s banking association, points out, the rules are essentially akin to “conscripting financial institutions around the world to be arms of US tax authorities”. …the IRS is threatening to impose a withholding tax of up to 30 per cent on sales of US assets by groups that it deems to be “non-compliant” – and the assets could include US shares or US Treasury bonds. Hence the fact that some non-US asset managers and banking groups are debating whether they could simply ignore Fatca by creating subsidiaries that never touch US assets at all. “This is complete madness for the US – America needs global investors to buy its bonds,” fumes one bank manager. “But not holding US assets might turn out to be the easiest thing for us to do.” …“Right now my board is probably as concerned about political risk in America as Indonesia, from a business perspective – perhaps more so,” says the head of one large global bank. It is a complaint that American politicians ignore at their peril.

Many people, when hearing about foreign banks resisting demands by the IRS, might automatically assume the issue involves jurisdictions with strong human rights laws with regards to financial privacy, such as Switzerland or the Cayman Islands.

There are plenty of those stories, to be sure, but American tax law has become so bad that the IRS is causing headaches and anger even in nations with high taxes and weak protection of client data.

Here’s an excerpt from an article from the Financial Post in Canada.

Toronto-Dominion Bank is putting up a fight against a new U.S. regulation that would compel foreign banks to sort through billions of dollars of deposits to find U.S. citizens who might be hiding money. According to Bloomberg News, TD has complained that the proposed IRS rule is unreasonable because it would require the bank to make US$100-million investment in new software and staff. Other lenders resisting the effort include Allianz SE of Germany, Aegon NV of the Netherlands and Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Bloomberg said. Now the Canadian Bankers association has joined the fray. In an emailed statement the CBA called the requirement “highly complex” and “very difficult and costly for Canadian banks to comply with.” …According to the New York-based Institute of International Bankers, major global banks would end up spending US$250 million or more to comply with the regulation in terms of new technology employee training.

The vast majority of Americans are very fortunate that they don’t have any personal interactions with the IRS’s onerous international tax rules. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t care. The tax treatment of cross-border economic activity can have enormous implications for America’s prosperity, as I’ve already explained in my discussions of a reckless IRS regulation that could drive more than $100 billion of capital out of American banks.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. FATCA is far more onerous and extensive, so the damage will be much greater. Not surprisingly, the law utterly fails to satisfy any sort of cost-benefit analysis.

From the perspective of politicians, the “benefit” is more tax revenue. So how does FATCA score on this basis? During the 2008 campaign, Obama claimed this policy would generate $100 billion of additional revenue every year. When it came time to score the legislation, however, the Joint Committee on Taxation predicted that the law will generate only $870 million per year. That’s a big drop-off, even by the shoddy standards of Washington.

Yet for this tiny amount of revenue, the law imposes a giant regulatory burden on all individuals, companies, and institutions that meet two criteria: 1) They have some form of cross-border economic activity, and 2) They have a business or citizenship relationship with the United States.

Americans living overseas are one of the groups that will be severely penalized. Simply stated, foreign financial institutions are treating U.S. citizens like lepers because they don’t want to deal with the IRS and be deputy enforcers of terrible American law. Here are comments from some of Americans living in other nations (all of whom wish to remain anonymous because they fear being targeted by a thuggish IRS).

  • From an American with a spouse working in Germany – “…when he went to create an account, he discovered that the bond fund could not be sold to US citizens.”o  From a non-profit group operating in Europe – “…we received notification from [bank redacted] that they were terminating our account.”
  • From an American working in Switzerland – “I’m in the process of having my…accounts with [bank redacted] forced closed, except for the mortgage. I’ve been unable to open an account with any other Swiss bank.”o  From an American living in Belgium – “…my portfolio of investments held at their bank was blocked. …He advised me that as of that date, I could no longer trade, but could only hold, sell or transfer my portfolio. I was banned from trading in either US stocks or all others.”
  • From a retired teacher in Germany – “I was denied the policy because I am an American citizen. My agent very clearly said that he could sell the policy that I wanted to any other nationality, except me-because I was American!”
  • From an American working in Saudi Arabia – “As a resident of Saudi Arabia, I have twice been rejected as a customer, purely on the basis of my US citizenship. In both instances, I was told that increased administrative and compliance burdens imposed by US authorities have led the banks in question to refuse to open securities accounts for American citizens.”
  • From an American in Japan – “All of these banks and institutions are cutting me off from participation in any but the most simple of basic bank account. Why? Because they do not want to take the time and instill the systems and carry the cost of reporting the income of each of their US citizen clients to the US government.”
  • From an American married to a European – “I have been unable to gain legal advice in Switzerland regarding US Wills and Guardianships because [bank redacted] lawyers are ‘not permitted to speak to Americans about legal, tax or banking matters in specific terms.’”
  • From an American married to a European – “The company who has been holding my modest UK share portfolio wrote to me in September 2010 saying they were closing my account. They were removing all US persons from their client base due to the increased reporting and audit costs placed on them by the Fatca legislation.”
  • From an American in Europe with a foreign spouse – “They sent me a letter saying: Our records show that you are an American citizen. Because of various strict new American rules regarding securities accounts held by American shareholders, we are closing such accounts including yours.”
  • From an American assigned overseas by his company – “I was extremely surprised and outraged by the fact that not one bank (including foreign branches of US banks!) would allow me to open a simple savings account to pay my rent and bills. All of the banks cited my US citizenship and the difficulties they experience with the US government.”
  • From an American in Spain – “I have been forced to close a U.S. bank account due to being an overseas citizen and cannot open new bank or brokerage accounts in the U.S. I am also being denied the opening of new brokerage accounts in Spain.”

Last but not least, another set of victims are foreigners who legally reside in the United States. That makes them tax residents according to American tax law, which means that they also are lepers from the perspective of foreign financial institutions.

Let’s close this lengthy post by including this letter from a Danish bank to a Danish citizen living in the United States. Once again, identifying information is redacted because the person did not want to suffer IRS persecution (it should disturb all of us, by the way, that there is such universal fear of IRS thuggery).

What the Tea Party Hath Wrought?

The Internal Revenue Service is investigating campaign donations to groups incorporated under 501(c)(4) of the tax code. Some in the IRS apparently hope to apply gift taxes to the contributions.

Higher taxes on an activity would generally lead to less of that activity, especially if a good substitute exists that is not taxed. In this case, donors could give money to 527 groups. Such donations are exempt from taxation. But 527 groups are subject to disclosure of donors.

The IRS investigations involve tax provisions “that had rarely, if ever, been enforced.” Why now? We do not know. But 501(c)(4) groups played in a important part in the 2010 campaign. As you know, the party in power lost control of the House of Representatives in 2010.  With the president’s re-election at stake in 2012, the administration might hope that that less money is available to fund the political speech of its opponents.

The White House has already issued a draft order requiring disclosure of political spending by government contractors. Now these investigations of donors. The IRS effort need not lead to legal complaints to be politically effective. As one expert notes, “The lack of clarity and the potential for not-insignificant taxation on these gifts will cause many of the biggest donors to think twice.”

Many people argue that mandatory disclosure of political spending has few costs and many benefits. Such laws are said to discourage few donors from funding political speech. If that is true, why is the Obama administration so interested in forcing donors out of anonymity?

Perhaps the administration believes deeply in transparency. Or perhaps the administration believes that attacking (no longer anonymous) donors will effectively discourage speech critical of the President in 2012.

The political misuse of the Internal Revenue Service should be a concern of everyone. During the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations, presidents and their people decided, as John Dean put it at the time, to “use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies.” Have we forgotten that history?