Thursday, April 17, 1997
Lock up pols until
they break tax code

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Have I missed the deadline to complain about the Internal Revenue Service? Ooooh, I hope not.

As we all know, if you miss an IRS deadline, they will swoop in and take your car, your house and all your children's Beanie Babies. They will lock you up in a federal prison where you won't know a soul, unless you're from Arkansas.

That is, if they're not too busy browsing through the files of movie stars and politicians. More than 1,500 IRS workers were investigated in 1994 and 1995 for suspected snooping, and an IRS employee in Tennessee was charged with rifling the returns of Lucille Ball, Elizabeth Taylor, Tom Cruise and Elvis Presley.

Well, it's one thing to act snippy when a taxpayer calls the agency with a question, but pawing through the personal finances of Lucy and The King is just too much. The IRS has got to be brought to heel.


Desperate questions

Or, maybe we could put the blame where it belongs. The IRS, unlovely though it might be, does not make the laws. Congress does. And our tax laws make about as much sense as a Calvin Klein ad. What are they trying to say?

How would you like to try to explain the tax code to somebody who calls in on April 14, desperate for your help?

''During 1996,'' brags an IRS Progress Report, ''we assisted over 104 million taxpayers by providing pre-recorded tax information, refund status information and telephone assistance from our representatives.'' The Heritage Foundation says each year the IRS gives wrong answers to 8 million people by telephone.

Spending $4 billion for data processing equipment over the past decade hasn't made a dent in the avalanche of paperwork. And more than 10 percent of all paper tax returns contain errors caused by the IRS.

Time magazine reports that with a $7 billion annual budget and 106,000 employees, the IRS still misses approximately $200 billion in taxes owed.

''Even a well-run IRS would have difficulty administering our complex and ever-changing laws,'' says Rep. Rob Portman, R-Terrace Park, co-chair of the National Commission on Restructuring the IRS.

Let's say, for instance, that you lost your house and its contents in the flood.

''Any replacement property you purchase,'' explain the instructions for the form dealing with insurance proceeds, ''that is similar or related in service or use to the home or its contents is treated as similar or related in service or use to that single item of property.

''Your basis in the replacement property equals its cost decreased by the amount of any postponed gain. For details on how to postpone gain, see Pub. 547.''

Disastrous trick

How about if we just assume that hardly anybody would try to turn a profit by buying a bunch of insurance for property damaged in a natural disaster? If they get a bargain on a new home or contents, let's let them keep it. Let's assume they didn't arrange a flood or tornado just so they could hoodwink the IRS.

Estimated time needed to complete just this one form, according to the information under the heading ''Paperwork Reduction,'' is three hours and one minute. For just this one form.

Questions? No accountant? No tax attorney? Just call the Problem Resolution number. Last year, only 21 percent of taxpayers managed to get through to the IRS on its toll-free line.

Mr. Portman is earnest and hard-working and smart. He'll get those phones answered and the computers up and running. But he will have to depend on the rest of his colleagues to do the hard part.

He says Congress should have a chance to vote on reforms before this year's August recess.

So, let's tell legislators that if they don't fix this mess before we have to wade into it again, we'll impound their cars and imprison their Beanie Babies. We'll make them fill out their own tax forms. We'll lock them up in a tiny, airless Tax Preparation Room. And we won't let them out until they can say something intelligent. Something simple and practical. In plain English. Two words, one syllable each, really should do it.

Flat tax.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.