The complexity of the tax code was named the "most serious" problem facing taxpayers in the 2012 annual report to Congress by National Taxpayer Advocate Nina E. Olson. And she's recommending that lawmakers take significant steps to simplify it.
In her report, Olson also found that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is not doing enough to assist victims of tax-related identity theft and return preparer fraud. She also expressed concern that the IRS is not adequately funded to serve taxpayers and collect tax, and identified ways in which this chronic underfunding harms taxpayers. She also found that the IRS is not doing enough to assist victims of tax-related identity theft and return preparer fraud.
"The existing tax code makes compliance difficult, requiring taxpayers to devote excessive time to preparing and filing their returns," Olson wrote. "It obscures comprehension, leaving many taxpayers unaware how their taxes are computed and what rate of tax they pay; it facilitates tax avoidance by enabling sophisticated taxpayers to reduce their tax liabilities and provides criminals with opportunities to commit tax fraud; and it undermines trust in the system by creating an impression that many taxpayers are not compliant, thereby reducing the incentives that honest taxpayers feel to comply."
The report states that the tax code imposes a "significant, even unconscionable, burden on taxpayers." Since 2001, Congress has made nearly 5,000 changes to the tax code, an average of more than one a day, and the number of words in the code appears to have reached nearly four million.
An analysis of IRS data by the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) shows that individuals and businesses spend about 6.1 billion hours a year complying with tax-filing requirements. "If tax compliance were an industry, it would be one of the largest in the United States," the report says. "To consume 6.1 billion hours, the "tax industry' requires the equivalent of more than three million full-time workers."
Individual taxpayers find return preparation so overwhelming that few do it on their own. Nearly 60 percent of taxpayers hire paid preparers, and another 30 percent rely on commercial software, with leading software packages costing $50 or more. In other words, taxpayers must spend money just to figure out how much money they owe.
To reduce taxpayer burden and enhance public confidence in the integrity of the tax system, the report urges Congress to greatly simplify the tax code. In general, this means Congress should reassess the need for existing income exclusions, exemptions, deductions and credits (generally known as "tax expenditures").
For fiscal year (FY) 2013, the Joint Committee on Taxation has projected that tax expenditures will come to about $1.09 trillion, while individual income tax revenue is projected to be about $1.36 trillion. To put these numbers in perspective, if Congress were to eliminate all tax expenditures, straight math indicates it could cut individual income tax rates by 44 percent and still generate the same amount of revenue it collects under current rules.
Tax-related identity theft
The number of tax-related identity theft incidents has increased substantially in recent years. Within TAS, identity theft case receipts increased by more than 650 percent from FY 2008 to FY 2012. At the end of FY 2012, the IRS had almost 650,000 identity-theft cases in its inventory service-wide. The problem has grown worse as organized criminal actors have found ways to steal the Social Security numbers (SSNs) of taxpayers, file tax returns using those taxpayers' names and SSNs, and obtain fraudulent tax refunds.
Then, when the real taxpayer files a return claiming the refund, that return is rejected. The impact on victims is significant. More than 75 percent of taxpayers filing returns are due refunds, which average some $3,000 and are not paid until the IRS fully resolves a case.
The report says the IRS has created numerous task forces and other teams in recent years in an attempt to improve its identity theft processes, yet victims still face the same "labyrinth of procedures and drawn-out time frames for resolution" that they faced five years ago. The IRS is instructing its employees to advise identity theft victims that it will take 180 days -- half a year -- to resolve their cases. Complicated cases inevitably will take longer. Thus, the IRS's procedural changes are not providing faster relief.
The IRS budget has been reduced in each of the last two fiscal years, and appears likely to face further cuts in coming years. Although these cuts reflect across-the-board reductions in federal discretionary spending, underfunding the IRS makes no sense, Olson said.
"The IRS is materially different from other discretionary programs in that it serves as the de facto Accounts Receivable Department of the federal government. Each dollar appropriated for the IRS generates substantially more than one dollar in additional revenue. It is therefore ironic and counterproductive that concerns about the deficit are leading to cuts in the IRS budget, when those cuts are making the deficit larger." Olson added: "The plain truth is that the IRS's mission trumps all other agencies' missions, because without an effective revenue collector, you can't fund those other agencies."