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Senate Finance Chair Reacts To Leak Of How Little America's Wealthiest Pay In Taxes

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

An explosive report by ProPublica this week confirms something that many already suspected, that America's wealthiest are not paying nearly as much in taxes as most people in this country do, relative to how much they make. The nonprofit news outlet obtained confidential IRS data showing how billionaires, including Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett, pay an incredibly small fraction of taxes on their wealth or, in some years, have paid no income tax at all. And we should note that Amazon is a financial supporter of NPR. This is also raising questions about how private individual tax records even made their way into public view.

And joining me now to talk about this is Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon. He chairs the Senate Finance Committee. Welcome.

RON WYDEN: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: Thanks for being with us.

So you mentioned at a committee hearing yesterday that you'll have a proposal to address all of this - that is, how the country's richest, in your words, are, quote, "not paying their fair share of taxes." We should point out, as ProPublica did, that there's nothing illegal happening here, right? So what's your plan?

WYDEN: Yeah, the outrage is what is legal. And what my proposal will do is eliminate the double standard. For example, right now, if you have a nurse who is taking care of COVID patients, they will have to pay taxes with every single paycheck. What the billionaires are essentially doing - and this is what the data revealed yesterday - is they're using the tax laws to delay and defer and postpone paying. That's...

CHANG: Right.

WYDEN: ...Wrong. They should have to pay their fair share. I'll have a proposal to change that.

CHANG: And what is the proposal exactly? How would you change the current state of affairs?

WYDEN: My proposal will ensure that they have to pay taxes every year, just like those working people. And the fact is that wealth just gets treated differently than wages. And that's something I'm committed to changing 'cause everybody ought to have to pay their fair share.

CHANG: Let's talk about this leak from the IRS. Some of your colleagues, like Republican Senator Michael Crapo of Idaho as well as you, have expressed concerns about the privacy and security of people's tax records in light of this whole story by ProPublica. I mean, the IRS says an investigation is underway. But do you personally have any insight at all into how all this information could have been made public?

WYDEN: The IRS has an important responsibility to protect taxpayer data. And IRS Commissioner Rettig made clear to me yesterday that he was determined to get to the bottom of this. My hope is that Republicans will be as concerned about billionaires paying no taxes as well as the disclosure yesterday.

CHANG: Well, the Biden administration is also pushing for a tax enforcement plan that would require banks to disclose more information about the money flowing in and out of accounts every year. Some Republicans have expressed concerns about that plan already. Do you think that this IRS leak will undermine efforts to get Biden's tax enforcement plan passed eventually?

WYDEN: We believe that you can crack down on unauthorized leaks and also attack this question of the tax gap. They're not mutually exclusive. But I also think when you have a trillion-dollar tax gap, and you have some of the wealthiest people in this country evading paying taxes, you ought to act.

CHANG: That is Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon. He chairs the Senate Finance Committee.

Thank you very much for joining our show today.

WYDEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.