Wearing a red button saying "simplify," the chief of the Internal Revenue Service said last week that paying taxes is too difficult, and he placed much of the blame on his agency for wasting time and money.
"When the IRS sends you a bill - `You owe us money' - but you've got to call us three or four times before you can even get through, what kind of business is that?" said Fred T. Goldberg Jr., commissioner of internal revenue.Goldberg spoke to more than 200 accountants at the Walt Disney World Swan hotel, where the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants held its fall tax division meeting. Buttons like the one Goldberg wore were distributed at the registration desk.
Although he spoke to tax specialists, Goldberg kept his speech simple, returning frequently to the theme that massive amounts of time and money are wasted by the system he oversees. Each year, he said, at least 6 million unnecessary calls and letters are exchanged between taxpayers and the IRS, and $400 million to $600 million is spent needlessly.
Goldberg outlined changes at the IRS that he said will improve service, and he urged that simpler tax laws be passed. "We can eliminate months of delay and mountains of correspondence," he said.
Goldberg said he will continue to step up enforcement, but the new mission at the IRS is persuading taxpayers to file voluntarily. Simpler laws, modern equipment and a new IRS philosophy will accomplish that goal, he said.
As an example, Goldberg cited the 1986 law requiring parents to file Social Security numbers for children. The law has dramatically reduced the number of children claimed as dependents, a drop the IRS attributed to greater honesty on forms.
"And it did it in the least intrusive way possible," Goldberg said. "Why sic more revenue agents on these folks?"
Evidence that the tax laws are too complex shows up in the amount of time the IRS spends correcting mistakes. Goldberg said mistakes are caught in 11 percent of 1040A forms. Between taxpayer error and employee error, the IRS spends 20 percent of its time correcting mistakes, he said.
Even a task as simple as keeping records is too complex at the IRS, Goldberg said. The IRS spends $20 million a year just storing copies of tax returns, he said, and then spends at least 45 days to retrieve them for taxpayers.
Goldberg described one transaction that accomplished nothing for a caller, but kept the person on hold for seven minutes. The IRS worker spent that time looking for a single piece of paper.
Technology and simpler laws can solve these problems, Goldberg said. So can changes in the way IRS employees are paid and promoted.
"This is not stuff like get us to Mars in 50 years or clean up the environment," Goldberg said. "This is mundane stuff."