Congress Loves Tax Complexity

Lawmakers talk about reforming the Internal Revenue Service, but if they want a culprit for tax-code complexity, the mirror is the place to look.

"The same people that blasted the IRS last April and will be blasting the IRS next April are responsible for this mess," says former IRS Commissioner Donald Alexander.

He describes the tax cuts just passed by Congress as "almost an unmitigated disaster," because they add new complexities to the system.

The child and tuition tax credits were adopted "for political purposes," Mr. Alexander says, adding with cynical humor: "People ought to forget their campaign promises" once elected.

A tax-writing committee post is regarded as "quite a plum," says Joel Slemrod, a tax expert at the University of Michigan Business School, Ann Arbor.

Though members of these committees are only 10 percent of Congress, they receive about a quarter of political action committee money going to Congress. Many of the donors seek influence on tax policy.

They have good reason, Professor Slemrod figures. There have been 4,000 tax code amendments since 1986 - more than one a day.

"If Congress were to bind itself to make no major changes in tax law during the next congressional session, the contributions would start to dry up," he explains in a new book, "Taxing Ourselves" (MIT Press).

Slemrod approves of many proposed IRS reforms. One would require that every tax bill be scored for its complexity and compliance costs on taxpayers and the IRS. If a bill is guilty in this regard, members of Congress could raise a point of order on the floor, as they now can if a spending bill has no funding provision.

Britain, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Austria either have or will have such cost-assessment systems.

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