Today at 10 AM EST National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson will be testifying before the House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee on the filing season. For those interested, the testimony will be live-streamed; the landing page for the hearing has a link that you can use.
This will be the last filing season that will feature Nina Olson testifying in her capacity as National Taxpayer Advocate. As many of our readers have likely heard, she announced her retirement, effective July 31, 2019. Nina has received countless accolades over the years, including the ABA Tax Section’s Distinguished Service Award and the Spragens Pro Bono Award, and has won recognition from many scholars both inside and outside tax who have looked to her work as a model for a successful ombuds office.
Nina has had a huge impact on my career. In 1997, after attending an ABA Tax Section panel on the importance of clinics that featured her and the late great Janet Spragens, I decided to explore the possibility of directing a tax clinic. I can draw a direct line from that panel presentation to me directing a low-income taxpayer clinic for over ten years. Her writing on issues over the years has also been the single greatest influence on how I think about tax administration.
Underlying her work has been a fierce commitment to give voice to taxpayers, whom Nina has always emphasized are human beings deserving dignity.
It can be easy sometimes to lose sight of that basic insight in the maze of procedural rules and the challenges the IRS faces in administering a complex tax system at a time when there have been (and continue to be) great pressures on the agency. Yet, that theme of recognizing the humanity of taxpayers is a constant chord through the eighteen annual reports she submitted, dozens of appearances before Congress, and in her writings and speeches. For example, consider her 2013 Woodworth Memorial Lecture:
At their core, taxpayer rights are human rights. They are about our inherent humanity. Particularly when an organization is large, as is the IRS, and has power, as does the IRS, these rights serve as a bulwark against the organization’s tendency to arrange things in ways that are convenient for itself, but actually dehumanize us. Taxpayer rights, then, help ensure that taxpayers are treated in a humane manner.
One essential part of Nina’s legacy will be the constant reminder that taxpayers are human beings, with failings, needs, and most of all an inherent right to be treated with respect.
One final point. As of next week as part of my sabbatical from Villanova I will be working with TAS as a Professor in Residence at the IRS in DC, working on a variety of projects including those involving taxpayer rights and the EITC. I know in this position I will continue to learn a great deal from Nina, just as I did when I attended that ABA panel over twenty years ago, and just as I will in the future when I reflect back on the lessons of her tenure.