Simplifying the US Tax Code | National exam

(Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Apparently Kevin Drum gave me the “price of brass balls” on his blog for my recent article on the IRS. He says the reason the IRS is incompetent is because “conservatives have been hell-bent on gutting the agency for the past 25 years.” He goes on to recount the alleged misdeeds of Republicans downsizing the IRS.

In doing so, Drum misses the core of my message: the tax code should be simpler. The IRS does not make the tax code. It applies the tax code as written by Congress. The IRS shouldn’t need so many employees in the first place because Congress should simplify the tax code. That’s what I was saying, as any simple reading of the article would indicate. Despite some helpful measures in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, such as increase the standard deduction so fewer taxpayers have to detailthe tax code remains far too complex, making the IRS’ job harder than it should be.

The IRS also happens to be mismanaged, a fact which Drum does not dispute since it is based on information from the Office of the Taxpayer’s Advocate (part of the IRS) and the experience of almost everyone who has ever dealt with the agency. The immediate cause of my post was a Capital Matters article by Daniel J. Pilla, which discusses the dire proposal to further bolster this mismanaged agency with facial recognition technology to verify identity and aid investigations that the agency undertakes. Drum was visibly silent on whether he thought it was a good idea.

Drum writes that Republicans want the IRS mismanaged because “it helps make taxes unpopular,” as if it were a cause that needed help. Taxes are unpopular because they involve the government taking your money, which has worried Americans since at least 1776. Americans then watch how the government spends that money and understandably become even more upset.

Drum’s retelling of the story is also a bit suspect. He seems to believe that when a Democrat is president and Republicans hold a majority in the House, the Speaker of the House assumes full power to decide the size of the IRS. He blames Newt Gingrich and John Boehner for the IRS staff cuts that occurred under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

He writes that during President Obama’s tenure, Republicans “cut another 20,000 employees by negotiating with Obama on things he cared most about.” In other situations, this despicable practice is known as “compromise” and is considered a necessary part of our constitutional order, especially during times of divided government. Here, it’s disparaged as a way to retroactively shield Democrats from criticism for policy measures Drum disagrees with.

Drum does one thing well. The endless complexity of our tax code has spawned an industry around tax preparation. This industry then has an interest in putting pressure on the government to keep the tax code complex. Again, the solution to this problem is what I argued in the post: simplify the tax code anyway. This forces politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, to resist pressure from lobbyists.

But nothing in Drum’s message calls into question my point, which I will repeat: with a simpler tax code, tax collectors would have less to do, which is better for them and better for us.

Thanks for the prize, Mr. Drum.

Dominic Pino is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.


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