For taxpayer advocate, a familiar refrain

Michelle Singletary
Columnist January 15, 2013

It’s not nice to tell people “I told you so.” But if anybody has the right to say that, it’s Nina E. Olson, the national taxpayer advocate.

Olson recently submitted her annual report to Congress and top on her list of things that need to be fixed is the complexity of the tax code, which she called the most serious problem facing taxpayers.

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

Let’s just look at the most recent evidence of complexity run amok. The Internal Revenue Service had to delay the tax-filing season so it could update forms and its programming to accommodate recent changes made under the American Taxpayer Relief Act. The IRS won’t start processing individual income tax returns until Jan. 30. Yet one thing remains unchanged — the April 15 tax deadline.

The IRS said more extensive changes could result in some people not being able to file their returns until late February or into March.

Because of the new tax laws, the IRS also had to release updated income-tax withholding tables for 2013. These replace the tables issued Dec. 31. Yes, let’s just keep making more work for the agency that is already overburdened. Not to mention the extra work for employers, who have to use the revised information to correct the amount of Social Security tax withheld in 2013. And they have to make that correction in order to withhold a larger Social Security tax of 6.2 percent on wages, following the expiration of the payroll tax cut in effect for 2011 and 2012.

Oh, and there was the near miss with the alternative minimum tax that could have delayed the tax filing season to late March. The AMT was created to target high-income taxpayers who were claiming so many deductions that they owed little or no income tax. Olson and many others have complained for years that the AMT wasn’t indexed for inflation.

“Many middle- and upper-middle-class taxpayers pay the AMT, while most wealthy taxpayers do not, and thousands of millionaires pay no income tax at all,” Olson said.

As part of the recent “fiscal cliff” deal, the AMT is now fixed, a move that the IRS was anticipating. It had already decided to program its systems on the assumption that an AMT patch would be passed, Olson said. Had the agency not taken the risk, the time it would have taken to update the systems “would have brought about the most chaotic filing season in memory,” she said in her report.

The tax code contains almost 4 million words. Since 2001, there have been about 4,680 changes, or an average of more than one change a day. What else troubles Olson (and most of us)? Here’s what:

● Nearly 60 percent of taxpayers hire paid preparers, and another 30 percent rely on commercial software to prepare their returns.

● Many taxpayers don’t really know how their taxes are computed and what rate of tax they pay.

● The complex code makes tax fraud harder to detect.

● Because the code is so complicated, it creates an impression that many taxpayers are not paying their fair share. This reduces trust in the system and perhaps leads some people to cheat. Who wants to be the sucker in this game? So someone might not declare all of his income, rationalizing that millionaires get to use the convoluted code to greatly reduce their tax liability.

● In fiscal year 2012, the IRS received around 125 million calls. But the agency answered only about two out of three calls from people trying to reach a live person, and those taxpayers had to wait, on average, about 17 minutes to get through.

“I hope 2013 brings about fundamental tax simplification,” Olson pleaded in her report. She urged Congress to reassess the need for the tax breaks we know as income exclusions, exemptions, deductions and credits. It’s all these tax advantage breaks that complicate the code. If done right, and without reducing revenue, tax rates could be substantially lowered in exchange for ending tax breaks, she said.

But of course it’s not that simple. “The perennial challenge in enacting fundamental tax reform is that while most taxpayers support a simpler tax code in concept, many of us are reluctant to give up our existing tax breaks,” Olson said. In other words, we want other people’s tax loopholes to be eliminated.

Still, Congress should make it a priority to simplify the tax code. I know I’m tired of Olson telling us so, while year after year nothing gets done to truly push for change.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Personal responses may not be possible, and comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to postbusiness.com.

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