Congress Should Resolve to Simplify the Tax Code

By Michelle Singletary
Thursday, January 8, 2009

It's the most exasperating time of the year.

Yes, folks, it's tax time.

While President-elect Barack Obama and Congress debate what could be $300 billion in tax cuts, one can only hope they will also address the mind-numbing provisions that make up the tax code. If we're going to go into that abyss yet again, can't we get some real permanent fixes that will end our frustration once and for all?

U.S. taxpayers and businesses spend an amazing 7.6 billion hours a year complying with tax-filing requirements, according to data complied by the National Taxpayer Advocate's office. In the past eight years, changes to the tax code have been made at a rate of more than one a day -- including more than 500 changes in 2008 alone, according to Nina E. Olson, the national taxpayer advocate.

The tax code's complexity is a serious problem, Olson writes in her 2008 annual report to Congress, released this week.

If you could sum up Olson's report in one word, it would be simplify, because the tax code's complexity is costly. About 60 percent of individuals pay professionals to prepare their tax returns. Another 22 percent purchase tax software. The report estimates that U.S. taxpayers spend $193 billion a year complying with income tax requirements.

Olson reports to Congress what many taxpayers already know -- that the tax code's complexity has led to "perverse results."

"On the one hand, taxpayers who honestly seek to comply with the law often make inadvertent errors, causing them either to overpay their tax or to become subject to IRS enforcement action for mistaken underpayments of tax," her report says. "On the other hand, sophisticated taxpayers often find loopholes that enable them to reduce or eliminate their tax liabilities."

Among many recommendations, Olson suggests that Congress repeal the alternative minimum tax provision. The AMT's goal originally was a good one -- to target high-income taxpayers who were claiming so many deductions that they owed little or no income tax.

The AMT, which is a separately figured tax, eliminates many deductions and credits, increasing the tax liability for an individual who would otherwise pay less. In 1970, the year after the AMT was enacted, only 20,000 filers were affected. But by 2010 more than 33 million -- a third of all taxpayers -- will be subject to the AMT, according to the Tax Policy Center.

Year after year, there are complaints that the AMT is now unfairly snaring the not-so-rich. And year after year, Congress sees fit to make only temporary patches to the provision. More people are being hit because the AMT brackets and exemptions are not adjusted annually for inflation. Additionally, some of the original provisions seem ludicrous in retrospect.

For example, under the regular tax rules, taxpayers can claim deductions for dependents and for taxes paid to state and local governments. However, those deductions are snatched away under the AMT. An estimated 77 percent of income subject to tax under the AMT is because of the disallowance of deductions for dependents and state and local tax payments.

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