National Taxpayer Advocate Nina E. Olson today released her 2013 annual report to Congress,urging the Internal Revenue Service to adopt a comprehensive Taxpayer Bill of Rights – a step she said would increase trust in the agency and, more generally, strengthen its ability to serve taxpayers and collect tax.
The Advocate also expressed deep concern that the IRS is not adequately funded to serve taxpayers, pointing out that the IRS annually receives more than 100 million telephone calls from taxpayers and that, in fiscal year 2013, the IRS could only answer 61 percent of calls from taxpayers seeking to speak with an IRS customer service representative.
Olson said: “From challenges can come opportunities, and this report presents a ‘21st century vision’ designed to meet taxpayer needs and enhance voluntary tax compliance.”
TAXPAYER BILL OF RIGHTS RECOMMENDED
The report reiterates the Advocate’s longstanding recommendation that the IRS adopt a Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TBOR).
The report emphasizes that the U.S. tax system is built on voluntary compliance. Ninety-eight percent of all tax revenue the IRS collects is paid timely and voluntarily. Only 2 percent results from IRS enforcement actions. For the taxpayer, voluntary compliance means not having to face IRS enforcement. For the government, voluntary compliance is cheapest, because enforced compliance requires the IRS to devote resources to detecting and collecting amounts that are not voluntarily reported or paid.
While arguing that knowledge of taxpayer rights promotes voluntary compliance, the report cites a survey of U.S. taxpayers conducted for TAS in 2012 that found less than half of respondents believed they have rights before the IRS and only 11 percent said they knew what those rights are.
“The Internal Revenue Code provides dozens of real, substantive taxpayer rights,” the report says. “However, these rights are scattered throughout the Code and are not presented in a coherent way. Consequently, most taxpayers have no idea what their rights are and therefore often cannot take advantage of them.”
“A Taxpayer Bill of Rights would serve as an organizing principle for tax administrators in establishing agency goals and performance measures, provide foundational principles to guide IRS employees in their dealings with taxpayers, and provide information to taxpayers to assist them in their dealings with the IRS,” the report says.
The ten rights the Advocate is proposing are detailed in the report.
The report identifies the lack of adequate IRS funding as a top problem for taxpayers. Each year,
more than 100 million taxpayers call the IRS for help and millions more visit IRS walk-in sites or send correspondence. Key metrics show the agency is increasingly unable to keep up with taxpayers’ demand for help in complying with their tax obligations.
The report highlights key areas in which the quality of taxpayer service has dropped to unacceptable levels:
- Last year, the IRS could only answer 61 percent of calls from taxpayers seeking to speak with a customer service representative (CSR). That’s down from 87 percent ten years earlier, with half the decline occurring since FY 2010. In FY 2013, 39 percent of calls (some 20 million) simply did not get through.
- Taxpayers who did get through had to wait on hold approximately 17.6 minutes before speaking with a CSR. That’s up from 2.6 minutes ten years earlier, a nearly six-fold increase, with nearly half the increase occurring since FY 2010.
- Millions of taxpayers visit IRS walk-in sites each year for assistance. Ten years ago, the IRS answered some 795,000 tax law questions in the sites during the filing season. Last year, it handled about 110,000 tax law questions during the filing season – a reduction of 86 percent.
- The IRS historically has prepared tax returns for taxpayers seeking its help, particularly for low income, elderly, and disabled taxpayers. Ten years ago, it prepared some 476,000 returns. That number declined significantly over the decade, and the IRS recently announced it will no longer prepare returns at all.
- Last year, the IRS received about 8.4 million letters from taxpayers responding to proposed adjustments to their tax liabilities. As of the end of the fiscal year, 53 percent of taxpayer letters in the IRS’s “adjustments” inventory were considered “over age” (generally, more than 45 days old). That compares with “over age” percentages of 12 percent ten years earlier and 28 percent in FY 2010.
- The IRS recently announced it will only answer “basic” tax law questions on its telephone lines and in its walk-in sites during the upcoming filing season and it will not answer any tax law questions after the filing season, including questions from the millions of taxpayers who obtain filing extensions and prepare their returns later in the year.
Impact on Voluntary Compliance and Revenue Collection.
The report notes that the cuts to IRS funding since FY 2010 have been made as part of across-the-board reductions to federal discretionary spending designed to reduce the budget deficit. But “the logic behind budget cuts simply does not apply to the funding of the IRS,” the report says. The IRS collected $255 for each $1 it received in appropriated funds in FY 2013.
OTHER KEY ISSUES ADDRESSED
Federal law requires the Annual Report to Congress to identify at least 20 of the “most serious problems” encountered by taxpayers and to make administrative and legislative recommendations to mitigate those problems. Overall, this year’s report identifies 25 problems, makes dozens of recommendations for administrative change, makes five recommendations for legislative change, and analyzes the 10 tax issues most frequently litigated in the federal courts.
Among the “most serious problems" addressed are the following:
- Need for Return Preparer Oversight.
- The IRS’s Conceptual Approach Toward Collection of Delinquent Tax Liabilities.
- The Impact of the IRS’s Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Programs on Taxpayers Who Make Honest Mistakes. The IRS has sought to increase enforcement of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR) reporting and similar information reporting requirements in recent years and has offered a series of offshore voluntary disclosure (OVD) programs to settle with taxpayers who have failed to file the required forms. However, the report says, the programs impose excessive penalties on taxpayers whose failure to file was not “willful.” Analyzing results from the IRS’s 2009 OVD program, the Advocate found the median offshore penalty was about 381 percent of the additional tax assessed for taxpayers with median-sized account balances, and 580 percent of the tax assessed for taxpayers with the smallest account balances (i.e., the bottom 10 percent, with an average $44,855 account balance). Taxpayers who “opted out” of the OVD program and agreed to subject themselves to audits fared better but still faced penalties of nearly 70 percent of the tax and interest. While FBAR penalties are computed as a percentage of account balances rather than tax liabilities, the report offers the comparison to illustrate that the penalties are often Draconian and may deter other taxpayers from coming into compliance.
- New TAS Research Studies on Tax Compliance. Volume 2 of the report contains six research studies, including three that relate directly to tax compliance:
- An assessment of accuracy-related penalties imposed on Schedule C filers found that penalties do not increase future reporting compliance.
- A comparison of the effectiveness of Revenue Officers (ROs) and the IRS’s Automated Collection System (ACS) in addressing employment tax liabilities found that ROs collected more dollars and resolved delinquencies more quickly than ACS, but neither channel was effective at promoting future tax compliance.
- A study regarding tax compliance by sole proprietors found that taxpayer service and social norms were the two most influential factors affecting compliance behavior. Contrary to expectation, the study found that traditional deterrence theory did not play a role in promoting compliance, possibly because sole proprietors were particularly motivated by short-term cash flow needs.
- Volume 2 also contains an analysis designed to further the National Taxpayer Advocate’s 2009 recommendation that the IRS develop a plan and timeline to achieve an accelerated third-party information reporting and document-matching system. The analysis describes the steps that must be taken and the benefits to taxpayers and the IRS of accelerating receipt and processing of third-party information reports, such as Forms W-2 and 1099.
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