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A Few Simple Words about Simplifying the Internal Revenue Code

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Jan 28th 2015
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Congress divides bitterly on hot-button social issues like abortion and immigration. But our lawmakers always display bipartisan support for proposals to make filling out returns much easier. As you would suppose, hardly any of these proposals for simplification of our Byzantine Internal Revenue Code become law, because these efforts end up—just like previous ones— tangled up in politics. As for the ones that are enacted, most of them tend to add to complexity rather than reduce it.

One of the first proponents of simplification was Senator Elihu Root of New York, who served in the early 20th century. Mr. Root’s whimsical comment on the 1913 tax act, the introduction of our modern system: “I guess you will have to go to jail. If that is the result of not understanding the Income Tax Law, I shall meet you there. We shall have a merry, merry time, for all of our friends will be there. It will be an intellectual center, for no one understands the Income Tax Law except persons who have not sufficient intelligence to understand the questions that arise under it.”

Add to the advocates Senator Robert Packwood of Oregon, a former chairman of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, as well as a politician with a flair for a wide range of activities (not all of them admirable). Mr. Packwood made this 1993 entry in his infamous diary, after discovering he was due a $50,000 income tax refund: “The thing that irritated me...is that I didn't know I was entitled to this...People think I know the tax law. I know the philosophy of the tax law. I don't know the details.” (The romantically restless legislator lost his job after it emerged that at least 29 women, including staffers and constituents, accused him of sexual abuse and assault.)

Senator Charles McCurdy Mathias, Jr., of Maryland sought to make the once-a-year affliction caused by the need to grapple with the Form 1040 less time consuming. To help attain that estimable goal, he sponsored the following legislation, known officially as 3719 (1970): “Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That it is the intent of Congress that, for the relief and assistance of American taxpayers, all forms, schedules, returns, declarations, manuals, instructions, tables and other materials prepared and distributed by the Internal Revenue Service for public use shall be as clear, concise and comprehensible as possible. It is the further intent of Congress that common everyday American English shall be used wherever and whenever possible in all such materials intended or required to be used by large numbers of individual taxpayers.”

Fortunately for the national interest, as well as for tax mavens like me who get paid to decipher the Internal Revenue Code and have families to feed, an understandably upset IRS persuaded Congress it would be a dereliction of legislative responsibility to approve such a proposal.

Senator Mathias was echoed by Robert Dole of Kansas, a Senate Majority Leader and an unsuccessful candidate for president. Mr. Dole endorsed a proposal to make English the country's official language. His 1995 announcement prompted one Washington tax wag to observe that he'd be happy "if they'd just make English the official language of the Internal Revenue Code."

About the author:

Julian Block writes and practices law in Larchmont, New York, and was formerly with the IRS as a special agent (criminal investigator) and an attorney. More on this topic is available from “Julian Block’s Year Round Tax Strategies,” available at julianblocktaxexpert.com.

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