Elizabeth Warren Introduces Bill To Make Tax Season Return-Free

from the intuit-ive-thinking dept

Yay, it’s tax season again! As our American readers will know, this is the wonderful time of year when we scramble to get all of our taxes and deductions paperwork in order, take them to some storefront that looks like a military recruitment center, push all of those papers in front of someone that looks like they just graduated from college, and scream, “You figure it out!” For our foreign readers, I should explain that we do this because our tax code is more complicated than the plot of Game of Thrones, our tax authorities are every bit as ruthless as that same series, and we’ve collectively allowed our citizens’ payment of due obligations to become a for-profit industry. But seriously, though, come to America. It’s great. I swear.

Several times in the past, some members of our government have attempted to lessen the burden we bear to pay our taxes. It never seems to work because the industry that makes money off of this tax system — the tax preparation people and software makers — lobbies to keep filing free taxes a pain in the ass, directly scaring the public into thinking the government will over-charge them, and then indirectly and unethically having sockpuppets do the same. It’s in this way that you have a free-to-file federal tax program that roughly two-thirds of the public would be perfectly qualified to use, instead only being used by 3% of the population. ‘Merica!

Well, Elizabeth Warren and seven co-sponsors would like to change that by simply eliminating the need for returns entirely for a significant number of people.

On Wednesday, the Democratic senator introduced a bill with seven cosponsors, including Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, seeking to make significant reforms to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Under the bill, Americans with simple tax obligations would have the option not to complete a tax return at all, but to instead receive a pre-prepared return from the IRS with their liability or refund already calculated for them. The IRS already gets most employer and bank information on taxpayers’ obligations — such as W2s and interest earned — so all it would have to do is calculate what they would owe for them.

For others with more complex situations — those who want to itemize their deductions or with many dependents who have to provide more information — the bill would direct the IRS to develop a free, online preparation and filing service that would allow everyone to file directly with the government, rather than relying on third party filing services like TurboTax or H&R Block. And taxpayers would be able to download the tax information the IRS already has.

In other words, have the IRS, which will be evaluating these people’s returns anyway, simply do all the math for most of the simple tax returns. We’re not talking about returns that would legitimately make use of deductions; we’re talking about very simple tax returns, which is what most people have filled out by tax preparers or tax software anyway. Now, this is usually where someone will make the obvious point: the government doesn’t deserve to be entrusted with this math. And, hey, I take that point seriously. The government has certainly shown its capacity to lie and deceive. But so has the tax-prep industry. Intuit has been guilty of all kinds of underhanded attempts to keep people from being able to file for free. They are proven deceivers, too.

In addition to that, this bill is directly setting its sights on the cozy relationship the IRS has with the tax-prep industry, so anti-governmenters should really think about getting on board with this.

The bill would also prohibit the IRS from entering into agreements that would restrict its ability to provide such free, online services directly to taxpayers. The IRS has signed a number of binding agreements with the tax preparation industry over the years that blocks it from offering free services directly to taxpayers itself, saying that it will “not enter the tax preparation software and e-filing services marketplace” and “not compete” with private service providers. The IRS’ declarations that it won’t enter the tax preparation space fly in the face of what it’s been mandated to do. In 1998, Congress passed a bill requiring the Treasury Department to develop a “return-free” tax system by 2008 for those with simple obligations, computing what those people owe with information the IRS already has. Yet Warren’s office argues that the IRS has instead turned control of the process over to private tax preparation companies.

When a government institution rebukes its public duties in favor of corporate wishes, there’s a word for that. And it’s that corporate control that will be pushing back on Warren’s bill. The tax-prep industry, after all, has spent nearly $30 million in lobbying Congress since the late nineties. We’re all about to get a very real lesson on the effect of corporate lobbying on a Congress that is ostensibly designed to serve the public need. I suspect the results will be as instructive as they are ugly.

Part of the solution to this is, of course, a simplified tax code. But it’s somewhat strange to see some in favor massive tax reform, including simplifying the tax code, come out against simplifying filing tax returns or eliminating returns entirely.

Yet some anti-tax groups that say they want a simpler tax code have fought against these efforts. Grover Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform, has testified and advocated against a return-free system. Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz has consistently called to abolish the IRS, rather than get on board with plans to direct the agency to make things easier for taxpayers.

Some of that sentiment is likely coming from a worry that a simplified filing system would lead many people to be less angered by the overall tax system, and thus less interested in more radical reform. And some is likely born of a deep-seeded mistrust of government in general and the IRS in particular. Which, again, I completely understand. But it would be wise for the listeners of those mouthpieces to truly understand what this legislation would accomplish, because it’s largely built around eliminating returns for filers with returns so simple that charging to file them is downright silly.

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Comments on “Elizabeth Warren Introduces Bill To Make Tax Season Return-Free”

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JBDragon (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Already exists, it’s called using your Web Browser!!! Which is what I do every year going to TaxAct.com to do my taxes. So it’s ONLINE. No software needed to install on your computer so it doesn’t matter what OS you’re using.

There’s no need to install that one time use garbage onto your computer. Buying and replacing every year. I still remember the days of buying TurboTax for my Amiga computer way, back!!!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

This is actually what’s required by law since 2008, though the IRS has been kowtowing to tax prep companies’ wishes.

The IRS is already supposed to know what you owe because they copies of your important tax records from employers and banks, etc.

The tax prep industry is going to spread so much FUD over this bill. They’ll claim (as they already have) that it will hurt poor people and minorities, as if the current system doesn’t already. Most poor people get something from the government. Why should they have to pay a third party to get that money?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“I get six different results.”

You have three options. If you want to pay fewer taxes but are willing to take the most risk you can

A: Pick the answer that results in the fewest taxes paid. If something goes wrong maybe you can sue the associated website …

B: Take an average

C: If you want to avoid risk just pick the one that tells you that you owe the highest amount … even that might be risky …

If you underpaid you will find out from the IRS in five years or so after the interest and penalties have had enough time to greatly accumulate.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Or D: figure out why they’re different…

There must be some reason, unless their math is simply wrong.

The tax rules are full of gray areas – also known as “loopholes”. Use them… pay someone (good) to do your taxes if they are sufficiently complicated. I had two different tax preparers do mine this year – first guy had me owing ~$6000, while the other hand me getting back > $5500 – that’s how big of a deal it can be.

TKnarr (profile) says:

The idea that the IRS would overcharge people is… well, in itself it’s plausible. Whether through simple incompetence or malicious intent, we’ve seen enough out of government agencies to know it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. But the IRS is providing all their figures to the taxpayer, who themselves have their own copies of the records and can do the math (or have it done for them) to double-check the IRS’s calculations. The IRS might over-charge, but in no way would they get away with doing it on any scale at all without getting caught at it. Even the IRS knows this, it’s exactly how they catch tax cheats. So why would they try in the first place, and how would they avoid being caught if they did try?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

So why would they try in the first place, and how would they avoid being caught if they did try?

People like you are disgusting. What fucking fairy-tale land do you live in that makes you think that any government agency or a single member of that agency would not fuck you over sideways just because they might get caught? Just what makes you think that just because it is government that they have no reason to use their power to even screw with you as a joke?

The police themselves have no reason to fuck with people yet they fucking arrest them over stupid shit or just because their little feelings were hurt. Do you honestly believe that the people in government whom also have feelings and can also have power trips will not fuck with you for some reason?

Go down to the DMV and bitch at one of your civil servants for being slow, inept, or even for treating you like a piece of shit and see how far that gets you.

You are a huge tool! There are numerous reasons for people in the government to try all sorts of shit on you, be it the IRS or whatever! Hell they even openly admit to taking taxes from illegals using your SSN because they feel that they are paying their share! The corruption is fucking splitting the seems of the government all over and you… I give up, you are too stupid to enlighten!

Please stop breathing, the air is more important for the rest of us that have a brain and can see multiple reason why they would “Try” anything in the first place!


TKnarr (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

People like you are disgusting. What fucking fairy-tale land do you live in that makes you think that any government agency or a single member of that agency would not fuck you over sideways just because they might get caught? Just what makes you think that just because it is government that they have no reason to use their power to even screw with you as a joke?

Did you think before ranting? You’re maybe right about an individual IRS agent, but we aren’t talking about individual IRS agents dealing with individual returns here. We’re talking about an automated system handling a huge number of the simplest returns there are (the people who can file 1040EZ, basically). To do what you suggest involves not just one person but a joint effort between likely hundreds of developers, QA people and managers in the IT division who have no contact with taxpayers and no direct involvement in the actual processing of returns. If they targeted more than a small handful of taxpayers, it’s virtually certain the systematic errors would be uncovered and an investigation begun by yet another group independent of the first. At that point even a single member of the first group (who doesn’t even have to be involved in the deal themselves, just know about it) deciding to not endanger their career by lying and the whole scheme unravels. Maybe they wouldn’t end up in jail, or even paying fines, but their careers would be over.

And these are returns with no wiggle room in them. A complicated return from someone pulling in 6- and 7-digit sums from multiple companies of various sorts, with investments and all sorts of other exotic forms in their return, you can make plausible arguments before the judge for thousands of dollars in variation in the tax liability. That kind of return it’s easy for an IRS agent to gouge a taxpayer. But a 1040EZ? The taxpayer or his tax preparer can nail down the tax liability to within a couple of dollars tops documented with paperwork whose numbers can’t be argued with since they didn’t originate with the taxpayer. They try to gouge the taxpayer, they lose the moment it gets appealed (and the appeal is trivial to do, you have to be brain-dead to screw up the form). They’ll have pissed off their supervisor big-time, gross stupidity in public never looks good on your evaluation form plus the supervisor now has to actually do something about them because of said gross stupidity. And if your tax preparer’s like the one I had, they’ll end up personally paying every penny of your expenses plus hefty punitive damages plus a hefty fine. If they’re lucky. If not, they’ll wish they were just inventorying every single page of tax records the IRS has, all the way back to when it was formed, with no tools other than a Crayola crayon and a 3×5 index card. The one thing bureaucrats hate most is a subordinate who’s stupid enough to get caught breaking the rules in so public a manner that it can’t be swept under the rug.

And all this for what? The chance to gain less than what they could gain in a month by jumping ship to the private sector? No, anybody stupid enough to try this wouldn’t be able to get the code through the compiler let alone past the QA department.

ysth (profile) says:

here be dragons

This sounds awesome. It would just take a $2 billion dollar, 5 year software project that ends up costing $4.5 billion and takes 9 years and is still incomplete, and we are good to go!

Or, you know, they could get some people interested in automating their tax filing to start an open source project that would end up accomplishing the same goal in a hundredth the man-hours and a tenth of the time.

radix (profile) says:

Disappointed this year

I’ve got a pretty simple return, and the online companies have been free the last few years. Any 1040 or 1040EZ is still free to file, but now Form 8889 screws that up. That’s the form that has to be submitted if you use an HSA in your health plan, which the government has been pushing.

So they mandate that tax filing has to be free for simple returns, then mandate that you file paperwork that makes your return not simple. This the the effect of tying health care to taxes.

Jamie (profile) says:

Re: New Zealand Managed This ...

As in 15 years ago. Broadband was barely even a thing back then!

I pretty much haven’t filed a tax return my entire working career. My employer pays my income tax based on my annual salary. My bank pays any tax on interest earned on my accounts. If there’s any discrepancy in how much I’m getting taxed, it’s probably worth less than the time it takes me to file a return.

My situation is fairly typical. Unless you’ve got additional sources of income or have significant deductibles, the tax system just handles things for you.

Emanuelk says:

Socialist Sweden

I’m a citizen of one of worlds most tax heaviest countries in the world, Sweden, we’re arguably world leaders in taxes. That’s always something!
Anyways, a simple tax return form comes prepared with all the figures from last year. If you’re lazy you can confirm the numbers via sms or an app. And you can of course hire an outside consultant if you like. Taxes is never fun, but atleast you don’t have to spend a lot of time with it. The “Swedish irs”(skatteverket) is one of the countries most trusted governmental institutions, but my feeling is that it says more about swedes than skatteverket

Anonymous Coward says:

Show me the money!

I for one would like to see all of the information the Government has on me. If they don’t have my gambling winnings, I can just leave that out of my tax return.

Seriously, they already have the information. Why can’t I download it and compare it against what I have?

I would think the tax prep companies would love this opportunity. We will save you 10% over what the Government wants to charge, or your return is free.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Everyone just pays a little less in taxes in general.

A flat tax would not result in everyone paying a little less, it would result in some people paying more and some people paying less. The proposals I’ve heard mostly result in the wealthy paying a whole lot less, and the shortfall is either not addressed or made up by massive budget cuts, which mostly hurt the poor. So in effect the poor fund a tax cut for the rich. No thanks.

John85851 (profile) says:

No, no, no

the bill would direct the IRS to develop a free, online preparation and filing service that would allow everyone to file directly with the government,
After the mess that was HealthCare.gov, why would anyone trust the government with creating a website again, especially one that calculates taxes and payments? What’s the saying, “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me”?

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