I had to chuckle as I wrote out our 2016 check to the IRS.
According to the instructions on the Form 1040-V, if we owed more than $100 million dollars, it would have to be sent in two separate checks.
After 30 years the IRS is still trying to cover all its bases in a doomed effort to sustain a failed tax system.
How many taxpayers could conceivably owe more than $100 million? And of those, how many would be filing by themselves, rather than employing a team of accountants and lawyers?
Note to Washington: It’s impossible to cover all the bases, because our tax system is not a system at all — it’s a moldering heap of exceptions. And it needs to be cleaned out, sanitized and swathed in sunshine.
The Tax Reform Act of 1986, or TRA86, marked a turning point in IRS/taxpayer relations.
Prior to TRA86, a taxpayer could call the IRS with a simple question — e.g. “How much is the standard mileage rate?” and be given an answer: “21 cents a mile.” (In 2017 the rate is 53.5 cents.) Taxpayers could receive that information within 40 seconds of calling. We know that because the required “average speed of answer” (or ASA) at an IRS call center in the early 1980s averaged just 40 seconds for all incoming calls.
Today your chances of receiving IRS assistance are poor; most questions go unanswered, and wait times of 45 minutes are typical. Even then, the answer you receive may be incorrect.
The problem? Revenue rulings, “clarifying” regulations and tax court decisions imposed daily on existing law add complexity to a tax code already larded with exceptions.
The IRS’s inability to track and explain these constant changes generated taxpayer complaints to Congress about poor service and inaccuracy, although Congress itself enacted the often undecipherable tax statutes. Indignation, hearings and threats of reduced appropriations followed.
The IRS responded by overcompensating for accuracy, and in doing so sent the entire taxpayer support system down a one-way spiral into the self-help quagmire we have today.
Post TRA86 taxpayers inquiring about the standard mileage rate were subjected to a lengthy series of “probes” to eliminate all possible incorrect answers. Is this business use? Did you move? Was a medical procedure involved? Did you drop off charitable goods? Were you possibly flying an airplane? Driving a motorcycle? Multiple vehicles? Prior depreciation used? How was the vehicle treated last year?
Under the present tax code each of these factors may yield a different rate or deduction. Hence, a simple question now requires a 20-minute interview.
The IRS has also recognized that more difficult tax questions (i.e., virtually all other tax questions) were too complex to answer correctly with any consistency, regardless of any telephone probing regime; and so taxpayers are now referred to IRS publications to extract their own answers.
In the IRS’ world, “no answer” translates into “no incorrect answers.”
While such measures inoculate the IRS, they do little to assist taxpayers wishing to voluntarily comply with their tax obligations.
Yet, we still have the IRS reminding some 200 million filers that if they are that one plucky taxpayer who shuns an electronic transfer of their $100 million-plus tax bill ... be sure to send it in two checks.
The IRS tax code, regulations, rulings and court cases fill entire libraries. It’s folly to imagine that anyone understands all the exceptions, limitations, exclusions and allowances. Employees of the IRS can’t — neither can your attorney, accountant, or local tax preparer. Nobody can. Yet the IRS remains the designated whipping boy for failing to deliver the undeliverable — a simple, logical, and understandable tax system. This is a result only Congress can deliver.
Understandably, long-suffering taxpayers take delight in IRS hardships, but when that agency collects the revenue required to fund our military, infrastructure, social programs and health care, it’s in everyone’s interest to have the most effective and efficient tax collection system possible.
Dan Sobieck is a former Minnesota resident who retired in Butte, N.D. He served in managerial and executive positions at the U.S. Departments of Treasury, Interior and Agriculture.