Charles Dharapak, File, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative political groups has little if anything to do with most everyday taxpayers, but some lawmakers are hoping attention to the budding scandal will swell public and political support for rewriting and simplifying a federal tax code that has undergone some 5,000 changes in the past dozen years.
"The complexity of the law didn't require the IRS to target people for their political beliefs," said Rep. David Camp, the Michigan Republican who chairs the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. But, he added, "I think giving the IRS less discretion is going to be important, and that's what a simplified code would do."
Most taxpayers now pay someone to do their taxes or buy commercial software to help them file. In a report earlier this year, national taxpayer advocate Nina E. Olson ranked complexity as the most serious problem facing both taxpayers and the IRS. People simply trying to comply with the rules often make inadvertent errors and overpay or underpay, she said. Others, she added, "often find loopholes that enable them to reduce or eliminate their tax liabilities."
Camp and his Democratic counterpart in the Senate, Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana, have been working for months on what would be the first major tax overhaul since 1986. At nearly 4 million words, Camp likes to say the current code is "10 times the size of the Bible with none of the good news."
Lawmakers in both parties say the current storm buffeting the IRS underscores how overly complex tax provisions have given the agency too much discretion in interpreting and enforcing the law.
"This is the perfect example of why we need tax reform," said Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., a member of the Ways and Means Committee. "If you want to diminish and limit the power of the IRS, you have got to reduce the complexity of the tax code and take them out of it."
There are formidable obstacles to completing a major tax overhaul this year or next. Both parties say they want to cut overall tax rates by getting rid of tax breaks but they disagree on whether more revenues should be part of the equation. And for all the work Camp and Baucus have done, they have yet to answer hard questions about which tax breaks to scrap.
Americans like their credits, deductions and exemptions — the provisions that make the tax law so complicated in the first place. In exchange for lower tax rates, would workers be willing to pay taxes on employer-provided health benefits or on contributions to their retirement plans? How would homeowners feel about losing the mortgage interest deduction?
Those are among the three biggest tax breaks in the tax code, according to congressional estimates, together saving taxpayers nearly $300 billion this year.
The IRS scandal erupted a little over two weeks ago when the agency revealed that agents assigned to a special team in Cincinnati had targeted tea party and other conservative groups for additional, often burdensome scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status. The targeting lasted more than 18 months during the 2010 and 2012 election campaigns, hindering the groups' ability to raise money, according to a report by the agency's inspector general.
Since then, two top IRS have officials lost their jobs, and a third has been placed on paid administrative leave. Investigations by Congress and the Justice Department are under way.
The IRS was screening the groups' applications because agents were trying to determine their level of political activity. IRS regulations say tax-exempt social welfare organizations may engage in some political activity but the activity may not be their primary mission. It is a vague standard that agents struggled to apply, according to the inspector general's report. Lawmakers in both parties have complained for years that overtly political groups on the left and right have taken advantage of the rules to claim tax-exempt status and hide the identities of their donors.
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