This has been a tough year for IRS. It has a tough job with two primary components: collecting revenues and administering a plethora of social programs embedded in the tax code. Over time, Congress has beefed up IRS’s role in administering social programs. Evidence of this is the robust growth in refundable credits; see, for example, the Tax Foundation’s blurb on the growth in those credits over the past twenty years, with the amount of credits issued in 2011 coming in at just under $100 billion, more than the budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Education.
Next week those interested in tax administration may want to attend either in person or via stream two tax policy events that will be held in DC. The first is next Tuesday March 25 Atlantic Magazine’s Tax Policy Summit at the Newseum. The Atlantic Tax Policy Summit will have as its focus a look at the challenges facing IRS when it comes to administering refundable credits. The second event is Thursday March 27 and is a tax policy discussion Tax Analysts is hosting at the Ronald Reagan Building. The Tax Analysts discussion will focus on whether IRS should adopt a comprehensive taxpayer bill of rights. I will briefly describe the events and at the bottom of the post give information for registering to attend either in person or via stream.
Atlantic Tax Policy Summit
The Atlantic Tax Policy Summit features a keynote speech by Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) and an introductory talk by the CEO of H&R Block, William Cobb. Senator Cardin is a member of the Senate Finance Committee, and H&R Block is a key player in the tax system (last year Block filed about 1 in 5 EITC returns and about 15 million returns overall). Following Senator Cardin and Mr. Cobb, there will be a panel that has a general charge of discussing steps“that can be taken now to combat fraud, preserve the integrity of the tax system, and better serve and protect consumers.” In addition to me, the panel will include Eric Toder, a Co-Director at Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center and Chi Chi Wu, an attorney at the Consumer Law Center. Eric has held senior positions at IRS, CBO and Treasury, and has written and co-written many papers on tax policy and compliance in particular. Chi Chi is a well-regarded advocate who while at CLC has authored or co-authored many reports on the commercial tax return preparer industry. The panel will be moderated by Nancy Cook, of the National Journal.
The presence of tax credits in the tax code makes the IRS job that much more difficult. People will never love tax collectors; it has been that way forever, as this post on the bible’s treatment of tax collectors describes. But throw in credits and people who do not like the underlying social programs will also find extra reasons to complain about the IRS.
It is highly unlikely that Congress will cease using the tax system as a mechanism to achieve non-revenue related social policy goals. For some, opposition to the underlying programs colors views on the IRS’s performance of its job in administering the law. I believe that a nonpartisan approach to tax administration can focus on the ways IRS can do a better job balancing its goals of delivering benefits to those entitled to those benefits while also preserving the tax system’s integrity–essential for collecting revenues. The danger of conflating opposition to the policies with the IRS’s administration of those policies is that those attacks can contribute to a decline in confidence in our tax system overall.
I have discussed some of my suggestions for improving the administration of credits in earlier posts. I will be sure to write a follow up post that will discuss the panelists’ suggestions for improving the tax system, and I will summarize some of my main points as well.
Tax Analysts Summit on Taxpayer Bill of Rights
The issue of the IRS adopting (or Congress legislating) a taxpayer bill of rights is one that NTA Nina Olson has proposed for many years, dating back to the 2007 Annual Report to Congress. The recent IRS scandal highlights the need to more forcefully and more transparently protect taxpayers. While the IRS has received its share of bad press in the past year, the danger of the perception (let alone reality) of a highly politicized and corrupt agency is enormous. One only needs to look at other countries like Greece where the nation’s lack of confidence in the tax collection function has led to major fiscal problems (for more on Greece, see Michael Lewis’ Vanity Fair excellent article Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds from 2010. It details a population steeped in tax cheating and an ineffective and equally corrupt tax system).
While we are a long way from a complete lack of trust in the IRS, the challenges of the past year bring into sharper focus the importance of concrete steps that IRS can take to enhance and perhaps restore the public’s confidence in the agency. In addition to the NTA, Chris Rizek and Alan Wilensky will be on a panel moderated by Tax Analysts’ Christopher Bergin. Chris is a member of Caplin & Drysdale with extensive experience on the Hill and Alan is a former Treasury official who wrote an article earlier this year on the need to meaningfully reform the IRS; it is summarized here by Chris Bergin in a Forbes post.
Attendance for the conferences can be in person or via stream. Information on registration for both events follows: