Don't bet on tax reform anytime soon

  • Article by: PAUL G. GUTTERMAN
  • Updated: January 30, 2013 - 6:58 PM

Despite what they say, pols like the tangled tax system just the way it is.

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Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.

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Every now and then I hear a student express concern about making a career in taxation. After all, in a Congress where there would be vehement disagreement on a resolution that the sun will rise tomorrow, there is unanimity that our tax system is far too complicated and bloated. There is scarcely a single member of Congress who doesn't list tax reform as a top legislative priority.

Yet I respond to students with a smile and say that major tax reform not only won't happen in my lifetime, it won't in theirs, either.

The reason for my certainty is that Congress always will look out for its best interests. And no matter what Congress might say, it likes the system in its present form.

To unravel this paradox it is necessary to understand that any policy goal can be accomplished through taxation. A case in point is the individual mandate to buy insurance under Obamacare.

The key finding by Chief Justice John Roberts last year was that a monetary charge on those who don't buy health insurance was a tax, even though both the president and Congress had taken pains to say it wasn't one. Once Roberts found the mandate was in substance a tax, its constitutionality followed. The Supreme Court hasn't limited the congressional power to tax in more than 90 years.

Name a policy objective -- whether it's limiting abortions or persuading people to eat more spinach -- and a tax can be imposed to discourage or a credit given to encourage any course of action. Excise taxes on tobacco and alcohol are referred to as "sin taxes," with altering behavior being a prime objective. The current tax code is stuffed with incentives such as encouraging home ownership, charitable contributions and "green" initiatives in wind, solar and electric cars. There are tax breaks for education, retirement savings, health care and child care. The list of business incentives is almost endless.

It would be quite feasible to get down to a "postcard" tax return if one were willing to take away all these "incentive" provisions. But the politics of tax policy say this is a pipe dream. Once taxpayers are given a tax break, it is difficult for Congress to take it away even if it were enacted on a "temporary" basis.

The 1986 Tax Reform Act was the last time tax law was simplified. While this was not a radical change, it did significantly reduce marginal tax rates while getting rid of tax shelters that allowed the wealthy to greatly lower their liability. The bipartisan bill was revenue-neutral, but the "grand bargain" lasted only a few years. Congress couldn't resist adding more incentive provisions that necessitated an increase in the tax rates.

There have been more than 15 major federal tax acts since 1986, and the only thing they have in common is that they have made our tax laws more complex in myriad ways contrary to sound tax policy. The tax code now contains more than 4 million words. Since just 2001 there have been more than 4,680 changes, an average of more than one a day. Nearly 60 percent of taxpayers hire paid preparers, with another 30 percent using commercial software. Businesses spend a lot of time and money complying with the tax laws.

Yet amid all these depressing statistics there is another fact: Our tax system is relatively efficient. It is estimated that the IRS collects about 83 percent of all tax that would be legally due if everyone was honest. Compare that to Greece, where they collect only about 66 percent of all tax legally due at four times the cost (relative to revenue) of the IRS. It has been noted that Greece did not have so much a debt crisis as a tax-collection problem.

There is much that can be done to improve our tax system. However, that has not been and will not be a goal of Congress. The goal of Congress is to get re-elected. Which inevitably leads to the conclusion that if voters demanded tax simplification as a condition for election, it would occur.

Yet voters have made it clear that they dislike tax incentives used by others but are very protective of the ones they use.

Until voters are ready to make their own "grand bargain" -- giving up their cherished tax breaks in exchange for lower marginal rates -- no action will be taken. Meantime, being a tax professional is a great career choice.

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Paul G. Gutterman is director of the Master of Business Taxation program at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.

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