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Setting The IRS Back On Course

Sen. Charles Grassley
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. Photo by Gage Skidmore

If ever a piece of legislation deserved bipartisan support, the latest effort to set the Internal Revenue Service back on course is it. Who is going to argue against the idea that the tax laws should not be enforced with an eye toward politics?

Well, presumably the people who have been encouraging the IRS to enforce the tax laws with an eye toward politics.

Senators Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and John Thune, R-S.D., recently introduced the Taxpayer Bill of Rights Enhancement (S.1578). This legislation is designed to bolster taxpayer rights while depoliticizing IRS enforcement policies.

Some key provisions include ensuring that IRS employees comply with the aforementioned Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which had been formerly championed by Nina Olson, the U.S. Taxpayer Advocate. The IRS Commissioner, John Koskinen, agreed to this set of taxpayer protections last year, all of which already had the force of statute, but were scattered throughout the Internal Revenue Code. The new legislation would make clear that abiding by these rules is a mandate, not a suggestion, for IRS workers. Further, it would significantly increase civil damages for improper collection activities.

The bill also includes language making it easier for taxpayers to set up an installment agreement, binding the IRS to the same rules as taxpayers regarding the calculation of interest, and changing some of the rules surrounding 501(c) organizations following the scandal that ended Lois Lerner’s career.

These provisions would be an excellent start to reforming an agency badly in need of it. Such changes would start the IRS down the road of greater transparency and better taxpayer relations, both of which would help the agency function more smoothly and efficiently.

In a statement, Grassley said, “This bill will help swing the pendulum away from agency self-preservation and back to taxpayer service.” Thune said, “No American should have to fear that politics could play a role in their confidential tax information being disclosed to a third party, that they will be targeted based on their political beliefs, or that the IRS would not properly retain its employees emails.” Neither of these propositions should be controversial.

As a tax professional, I can’t find anything objectionable in the new bill. I have seen abusive and dishonest collections behavior firsthand, and it took until a few years ago to codify situations in which an IRS employee should be charged with misconduct and fired. The so-called “10 deadly sins” would be updated by the new legislation, should it pass. We are moving in the right direction, but we have not yet arrived. In addition, the political tinge in the IRS treatment of nonprofits was evident long before anyone had heard the name Lois Lerner. Depoliticizing the IRS should be a top priority on both sides the aisle.

Unfortunately, we can’t take bipartisan support as a given. The people who have benefited from a strongly political IRS are unlikely to see a pressing need to reform that slant out of existence. As such, we can expect strong opposition from Democrats who see what they call “dark money” as a mortal threat to democracy (except for dark money directed toward the Clinton Foundation, of course).

Even if the bill makes it through Congress, I don’t put its prospects for presidential signature any better than 50-50. With no further races to run, the extremely partisan president who encouraged the tax agency in its partisan witch hunt will have free rein to show his contempt for those who think the IRS really ought to focus on the fair enforcement of tax laws. He might surprise me, but he has no compelling reason to do so.

What’s inarguable is that the agency is due for an overhaul. It will get one eventually; we may just have to wait awhile.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Anyone Can Achieve Wealth,” and Chapter 19, “Assisting Aging Parents.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s previous book Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55.

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