Business owners owing back payroll taxes often ask me why the IRS won’t lift its levy. After all, these clients argue, I just need a bit of free cash to invest back into my business and then I’ll make enough money to pay what I owe the IRS. Why can’t the IRS act more like my business partner – if I make more money, than we’ll both be better off?

While this reasoning is intuitively appealing – after all, isn’t payment of taxes what the IRS seeks? – it also overlooks how the IRS fundamentally differs from a business partner, and thus overlooks the incentives that IRS agents face and that result in the enforcement of levies for payroll taxes even if that enforcement bankrupts a business.

First, the IRS has no assurance that a faltering business that was unable or unwilling to make payroll tax payments in the past will do so in the future. Think about it: the only evidence the IRS has of the business’ future reliability to grow its business is the past failure to make required payroll tax payments. This is what’s known as negotiating from a position of weakness, and is highly unlikely to persuade a revenue officer to cut you slack.

Relatedly, the IRS is not a bank and revenue agents are not loan officers. The IRS has neither the mandate nor the expertise to decide on a business’s creditworthiness. After all, asking the IRS to lift a levy is like asking it to loan money to the business. Making such financial decisions, or even analyzing the documents on which such loan decisions are made, isn’t part of revenue agents training or skill set.

Second, even if revenue agents had the discretion to lift the levies on some businesses, do we want that? What if your business got the “hard-nosed” revenue agent, while a competitor of yours in a similarly-bad financial position was assigned an “easy” revenue agent: your levy is enforced and kills your company, while your competitor’s levy is lifted, giving them the chance to remain in business for at least a while longer, simply because you were unlucky on which revenue was assigned to your case. Unfair? You’d have a right to be steamed.

Please understand, I used to counsel collection officers at the IRS. They were conscientious, surprisingly kind people. Many were military veterans. And they all saw their job as making sure that everyone felt the same pain from the enforcement of tax laws. This meant that taxpayers couldn’t “buy” laxer enforcement with a promise of making more money if they could just use the taxes owed as a temporary loan.

Finally, the collection officers’ commitment to the consistent enforcement of the tax laws underscores that the IRS is first and foremost a law enforcement agency. As such, it views a business owing payroll taxes as having committed a criminal act, namely stealing employees’ tax payments for private and unauthorized use. For this reason, revenue agents are rewarded for closing cases, not for the amount of back taxes collected. The IRS is in the business of tax compliance – a mandate that needs to be carried out as consistently and fairly as is humanly possible in order to preserve the credibility of the agency and government (just think about the recent brouhaha over “tea-party” scrutiny).

So, the bottom line for business owners facing levies for back payroll taxes: the IRS never has and never will be your banker, no matter how convenient it would be for you if it were.