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Opinion | The Picture of a Broken Tax System

Cracking down on rich tax cheats is law enforcement. It is a basic function of government to ensure that people are playing by the rules. Tax cheating is not a victimless crime. Every dollar hidden from the government is that much less money to spend on education, roads and research. The rich are benefiting at the expense of everyone else.

It would be relatively easy to start collecting some of that money. The Congressional Budget Office estimated in July that adding $40 billion to the I.R.S. budget over the next decade would yield $103 billion in otherwise uncollected federal income taxes.

The methodology of that estimate is extremely conservative, as Natasha Sarin, an assistant law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Lawrence Summers, an economics professor at Harvard, noted in a July paper. Dr. Sarin and Dr. Summers estimated that fully restoring I.R.S. funding, and modernizing collection techniques, would allow the government to collect $1 trillion of the unpaid taxes.

Strict enforcement should start with the president, to show that no American is above the law.

Mr. Trump claimed a tax refund of $72.9 million in 2010, according to the Times report; the government paid the claim, and then opened an investigation. If Mr. Trump loses, he could owe the government more than $100 million in repayment, interest and penalties. It should not take federal authorities more than a decade to determine whether Mr. Trump has paid the full amount he owes. The government must move urgently to resolve this question.

On Tuesday night, when Mr. Trump and his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, take the stage for their first presidential debate, both men should be asked what steps they will take to ensure that all Americans pay the full amount they owe.

And Congress should restore every penny of funding stripped from the I.R.S. since 2010 — plus whatever is necessary for the agency to perform its critical work.

Paying taxes is a civic duty, and the government needs the money. Most Americans try to pay what they owe, even if they wish they owed less, and they take comfort in the assumption that most of their neighbors are conducting themselves in the same way.

Americans deserve to know that the president has paid his taxes, too.

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