By Rachel Ochman
For those of you who’ve long itched to give Uncle Sam a piece of your mind about the complexities of the tax code, the Internal Revenue Service’s own taxpayer advocate may have beaten you to the punch. Nina Olson on Wednesday released her annual report to Congress, and it includes a long list of areas for tax-code improvement.
Olson presented the 72-page report to Congress, and in her address, noted that Americans spend nearly 6.1 billion hours preparing their returns each year. Yes, billions, with a B. That figure is not so surprising given the tax-code word count has nearly trebled over the past decade–to 3.8 million words in February 2010 from 1.4 million in 2001.
But more than just throwing out shocking numbers, Olson offered comprehensive and far-reaching criticisms and suggestions. (She’s required to do so; IRS code asks the advocate to submit a yearly report, and in it, to identify at least 20 of the most dire problems taxpayers face, and recommend how to tackle them. Narrowing those down this year couldn’t have been an easy task considering the ever-changing tax code, which WSJ reported on last month.)
In her address, Olson discussed three of the biggest obstacles the IRS will encounter–and should deal with–over the next 10 years:
1. “The time for tax reform and tax simplification is now.”
Olson identifies the “overwhelming” complexity of the tax code as the IRS’s most pressing problem. But there’s no room for finger-pointing. As she explained, the overly intricate system arises from the tax provisions that benefit every taxpayer, although often in different ways. “We are the special interests,” she says. Last month, the Joint Committee on Taxation published its annual analysis of tax expenditures from FY 2010 through FY 2014. The top three: 1) the exclusion of employer contributions for health care, health insurance premiums, and long-term care insurance 2) the exclusion for retirement plan contributions and earnings and 3) the mortgage interest deduction for owner-occupied housing. Together, that’s estimated to cost a whopping $1.74 trillion dollars in money that is credited or deducted on returns over the five-year period. These are bread-and-butter benefits allocated to a vast majority of taxpayers. To simplify the code, taxpayers would have to be willing to give up or ratchet down the value of the tax breaks he or she holds near and dear.
2. “The IRS should revise its approach to social programs and incentives administered through the code.”
Over the past 10 years, the tax code has been crammed with special provisions known as “tax expenditures.” These deductions, credits and preferential rates require the IRS to collect information that the entity isn’t always equipped to trace. The traditional model of revenue collection breaks down at the point where the IRS becomes both the gateway to benefits and the guardian against fraud, certifying proper compliance and eligibility for those very benefits, Olson argues. For example, the IRS will have to take a significant role administering the sweeping health care legislation passed in 2010. The bill calls upon the agency to oversee credits and penalties such as the Small Business Tax Credit and the Individual Penalty for Lack of Coverage. (The Congressional Budget Office estimates the IRS will need $5- to $10-billion over 10 years to take on these added responsibilities, according to Olson’s report.) The IRS, she suggests, must hire skilled employees with social-service backgrounds, who can manage this out-of-scope and enlarged role of the agency.
3. “Automation should facilitate IRS interaction with taxpayers, not diminish it …”
Automation should not be a substitute for judgment, particularly when it’s to the detriment of the taxpayer. But Olson says the IRS isn’t properly staffed with artificial-intelligence experts to make sure the system operates otherwise. Far too often, audits “plow along on autopilot” without human assessment until a Notice of Deficiency is issued, even if the taxpayer has sent supporting documents to satisfy the inquiry. Better use of the automation already available could avert even some of the simplest logistical problems, she says, including mailing notices to the correct address and collecting revenue. A Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration audit estimated that during FY 2009 about 19.3 million pieces of mail–or one in 10 mailings–were “undeliverable as addressed” and returned to the IRS. The audit’s estimated cost for these mistakes is $57.9 million, not to mention the headache, heartache and paperwork that ensues when taxpayers don’t get their mail from the IRS.
Olson’s latest call to action echoes frustrations articulated in the reports from 2009—in which she said the No. 1 issue as the IRS’s inability to answer the phone—and 2008 when tax-code complexity again topped her list .
Readers, what are your biggest gripes and grumbles about the tax code? What do you think the IRS can do to fix it—and what would it take to make that happen?