Tax writers can’t figure out the tax code, either

Jonathan Strong Jonathan Strong, 27, is a reporter for the Daily Caller covering Congress. Previously, he was a reporter for Inside EPA where he wrote about environmental regulation in great detail, and before that a staffer for Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA). Strong graduated from Wheaton College (IL) with a degree in political science in 2006. He is a huge fan of and season ticket holder to the Washington Capitals hockey team. Strong and his wife reside in Arlington.
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Maybe it’s a sore subject.

IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman practically ran away when The Daily Caller asked him whether he prepares his own taxes. Millions of Americans struggling through complicated IRS forms in the weeks leading up to tax day — April 15 — might like to know.

“I don’t have time for this  … If you want an interview, you can call my office,” he said, speed-walking down an ornate hallway in the Longworth House Office Building. Shulman had just testified to the top tax committee in the House about steps he was taking to make it easier for people to file their taxes.

Shulman’s spokesman later said he employs an accountant to prepare his tax filings, as does about 60 percent of the country who shell out hundreds or even thousands of dollars each for such services.

Rep. Xavier Becerra, a top Democrat on the Ways & Means Committee that was holding the hearing, is keeping a watchful eye on those tax preparer services, who he says sometimes fleece unwitting customers. “Americans who could fill out a simple [tax forms] are being charged hundreds of dollars to do what they” could on their own, he said.

So does Becerra prepare his own taxes?

“No. I have a tax preparer back home who’s been doing it for me for many years,” he told The Daily Caller. Becerra explains that his finances are more complex — and his tax filings fall under far greater scrutiny — than ordinary Americans who could figure out the forms if they tried.

How about the chairman of Ways & Means oversight subcommittee that asked for Shulman to testify Thursday?

“Oh no, no, no, no, no. I have an accountant that I’ve been using for years,” Rep. John Lewis said. He said he needs to head home this weekend to fill out paperwork for his accountant.

Lewis’s suggestions is for people who are having a hard time with the forms go to the IRS for help. “Get on the telephone, call an IRS service center or go visit a service center … and have them walk through their filing,” which, he noted, the IRS does for free.

But from a broader perspective, everybody agrees the complexity of the tax code is a problem. Some experts even argue the tax code is akin to a undergrowth that needs to be trimmed every few years.

“It is universally acknowledged that the internal revenue laws are complex, and as a result, about 60 percent of individual taxpayers and 80 percent of small business taxpayers hire preparers to help them prepare their tax returns,” Nina Olson, whose job is to represent taxpayers at the IRS, recently testified.

Despite the unanimity about the problem, for many years the tax code has continued to accumulate loopholes, credits, carve-outs — incentives and disincentives, which are the kind of thing that makes it more difficult for each American to figure out what he or she owes.

The IRS says, essentially, don’t blame us, blame Congress. Commissioner Shulman’s spokesman said, “Everyone understands there is complexity and everyone would like to see the code simplified. But the IRS’s job is to help people deal with the current code.”

Some members of Congress would like to see it fixed. “America’s job creators suffer under a tax code that is too complex, too expensive and fails to provide the stability employers need to hire and grow with confidence. The IRS estimates small-business owners spend nearly 1.8 million hours and upwards of $17 billion a year to comply with ever-changing tax laws,” Rep. Charles Boustany, Louisiana Republican, said in a recent op-ed.

If we’re wasting $1.7 billion a year on it, what gives? A GOP aide says special interests overwhelm any push for reform. “The major reason is that a lot of the complexity benefits various people. So you have a vast lobbying effort that depends on some of the various carve-outs that Congress was able to create and that they’re able to get inserted into legislation. Today, each one of those adds complexity to the system.”

We asked people whether they knew of any lawmakers who do prepare their own taxes. One suggestion was Wyoming Sen. Mike Ezni, a certified accountant. Enzi’s spokeswoman confirmed that yes, Enzi is one of the (very) few.

“Senator Enzi does prepare his own taxes. He believes the federal tax code, which is more than 17,000 pages long and counting, is too complex. He has sponsored several bills to simplify the tax code so taxpayers aren’t forced to spend additional money on taxpayer professionals to prepare their taxes,” she said.