Complexity Theory

If the IRS is abusive, the tax code is worse.


A California woman spends 17 years fending off attempts by revenue agents to take her family's property because the Internal Revenue Service issued her husband's optometry practice an incorrect account number. A Florida priest fights IRS agents who try to swipe $18,000 from a trust fund for the poor because he filed the wrong form.

The Senate Finance Committee's hearings on IRS abuses gripped our attention in ways the campaign hearings never have. Chairman William Roth (R-Del.) did a brilliant job selecting telegenic witnesses who could tell riveting stories. And it's easier to make villains out of revenuers than it is to convince people that the fund-raising phone calls Al Gore made from his office were criminal, even if the vice president really did break the law.

It's always healthy when abusive actions by government officials generate outrage. Yet many of the abuses highlighted before the finance committee–for which the
responsible agents and managers deserve punishment–were the direct consequences of the actions of Congress, including the very senators who convened those hearings. The IRS is a capricious agency because its mission is to enforce a tax code which does not treat citizens as equals before the law. Barney the Dinosaur could become the commissioner of revenue, but as long as the government remained huge and the tax code complicated, the IRS would still act in outrageous ways.

Consider the tax package that same Senate Finance Committee passed this summer. It contains more than 1,000 changes in the Internal Revenue Code, so many alterations that next year's 1040 form may expand to three pages. At the IRS hearings, New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the senior Democrat on the committee, noted that this year Congress added more than 800 pages to the tax code, which now numbers more than 9,400 pages. And every time the tax code is tweaked–even if the change results in a tax cut–the law becomes more complex and the IRS gains new opportunities for mischief and mistakes.

For instance, Congress cut capital gains rates this summer. The top rate will fall from 28 percent to 20 percent–if you hold an investment for at least 18 months. But let's say you sell a mutual fund 17 months and 28 days after buying it, and you made a hefty profit on the deal. What's to prevent you from claiming the 20 percent rate on your tax return? The IRS. That's its job. And if you're audited, the IRS agent working on your file will demand plenty of documents that make it clear you didn't cut corners on still other occasions.

And if you or your children are considering college, you have three new tax breaks to ponder: tax credits for tuition, tax-free savings accounts, and a deduction for the interest on college loans. Each demands documentation, and qualifications vary with marital status and income–still more opportunities for things to go wrong. It's no surprise the IRS plans to add at least 10 pages to the 51-page instruction booklet that accompanies 1040 forms.

The federal treasury will collect and spend around 20 percent of Americans' incomes next year. If the tax code were simply designed to collect that money as efficiently as possible–say, through a single-rate income or consumption tax–tax collectors would still need significant powers to enforce the law. But the political class has created a tax code that is an exercise in social engineering. It treats individual Americans unequally based on the amount of money they make, the professions they choose to pursue, or the decisions they make about spending or saving their earnings. Those inequities create room for abuse that go beyond the coercion necessary to enforce a code as simple as, say, the flat tax.

To his credit, Roth has been a longtime advocate of tax simplification, going back to the original Kemp-Roth tax cuts he helped develop 20 years ago. And House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer (R-Tex.), who will convene his own hearings on the IRS this fall, wants to replace the income tax with some type of consumption tax. But their colleagues seem more interested in tinkering around the margins.

"It is important to point out that a great deal of the problems of the IRS come about because of legislation we ourselves have passed," Moynihan said at the hearings. Until Congress radically simplifies the tax code, these problems will continue.