As tax season finally gets underway, it's not uncommon for taxpayers and preparers to lament their lot. Taxpayers, naturally, lament paying taxes, and not just because of the money lost -- there's the time spent getting your taxes done, the worry over the possibility of an audit, and the anxiety that this might be the year the Internal Revenue Service finally realizes that it's physically impossible for even the most charitable of trade magazine editors to make so many deductible donations.
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Tax preparers, meanwhile, have it even worse, as they work around the clock to complete ever-more-complicated returns in a period of time that seems to get shorter every year, all while burdened with more and more mandates and regulations, and dealing with the unrealistic expectations of clients, like the trade magazine editor who insists you get him the green credit for installing energy-efficient windows in his home, even though said editor has told you onseveral occasions that he's a renter.
Tax season is an easy time to feel sorry for yourself -- and with good reason. Yet in the midst of this season of self-pity, I'm going to suggest we spare a thought for another tax season sufferer, an unlikely subject of sympathy, but one that faces obstacles as great or, in some cases, greater than either tax preparers or taxpayers.
I'm talking about the IRS itself.
Now, I know that the IRS is not the most efficient organization in the federal government, or the most beloved. It is, after all, the agency that takes away our money, and makes us work for the privilege, with complicated forms and antiquated technology, and the ever-present threat of audit and prosecution. I'm not suggesting you send the IRS flowers, or invite it over for a barbecue, or let it marry your daughter.
What I am suggesting is that you look at things, briefly, from the IRS's perspective, and realize that much of what we all hate it for is not, in fact, its fault. The complicated Tax Code? That's Congress, not the IRS. A late start to tax season? Congress again. Uncertainty over tax rates? Congress.
Consider the burdens placed on the IRS. Tax preparers complain that the IRS is forcibly drafting them into work that isn't their problem, but Congress has been doing this to the IRS for years, requiring it to oversee programs in areas as far apart from each other -- and as unrelated to revenue-raising - as social welfare and business development. Administering large chunks of the health care reform act is only the most recent mandate added to the service's to-do list.
It's supposed to take money from citizens while at the same time "serving" them, as if they can ever be made happy about giving up money they'd rather keep. It's supposed to maintain "voluntary" compliance while closing a $400 billion tax gap, and catching the thousands of fraudulent returns. When it aims for efficiency, as with e-filing, it runs into complaints that it's unduly burdening taxpayers and preparers; when it aims to improve the professionalism of preparers, as with the Registered Tax Return Preparer program, it meets with court rulings that deny it the authority to do so.
And all this with a budget and headcount that's been significantly declining of late.
The IRS is a long way from perfect, it's true. Like any other organization, public or private, it has its flaws, and its share of rude, clueless or otherwise unacceptable personnel. I'm not suggesting we overlook the flaws that it has -- like any other organization, public or private -- just that we recognize that it, too, has burdens, and tax season challenges that are unique to it, and that when we're tempted to complain about the IRS, we make sure that complaint isn't better directed at someone else -- whether it's clueless taxpayers, criminal preparers, or, most likely, the mixed nuts in Congress.
Anyone, in short, but the agency that can question our charitable donations, or how many energy-efficient windows we installed.