Last week, I argued that the political corruption at the IRS revealed last month should give momentum to throwing out campaign-finance “reform” regulation, and produce massive simplification through the end of direct donations and the imposition of immediate transparency. That would effectively strip the IRS of any role in policing political activities, a role which it should never have had in the first place. To reduce the ability of the IRS to conduct mischief through other means, Congress needs to simplify the tax code as well, Rep. Peter Roskam argues in Roll Call, and the scandal may have finally provided the momentum for that kind of reform:
As details emerge of the IRS targeting groups for how they view the world, not how they comply with the tax code, many wonder if anything can be accomplished in this escalating culture of distrust. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the scandal highlights the urgent need to reform the IRS by simplifying the tax code.
As is, the tax code is so burdensome and complex that Americans spend an average of 13 hours a year trying to comply. Taxpayers can’t help but fear as they submit their forms that they’ve left themselves vulnerable to an audit. Even before details of the IRS scandal came out, there was an overwhelming feeling of anxiety and mistrust about the massive amount of power the IRS holds.
Now, calling for IRS reform is a popular part of the public conversation. Republicans and Democrats alike are on the record as strong advocates of change, denouncing the agency’s actions as “unthinkable” and “an outrageous abuse of power.” It’s brought the pressing flaws in the tax code front and center. …
The IRS’ overreach is disturbing and we must never let it happen again. Simply put, you can’t reform the IRS without reforming the tax code.
True — but just how far will Congress go? After all, it wasn’t the IRS that created the massive complexities in the US tax code. That came from Congress over the last several decades, after politicians of both parties discovered that they could pay off important constituencies with tax-code carve-outs of one kind or another.
That’s not just a reference to the corporations, man, but also voter constituencies. People on all sides want the tax code to favor some kind of social outcomes, whether it’s a progressive structure that targets the wealthy or one that favors marriage and children. There isn’t a constituency in America outside of the hard-core libertarians that don’t have some sort of tax-code preference to favor what they see as a social virtue — right down to the homeowners who want to defend the mortgage-interest deduction to the bitter end.
Does anyone think that Congress will give up that ability without a fight — and give it up permanently? The flat tax would be the best way to eliminate the complexities while avoiding the need for a constitutional amendment to repeal the 16th Amendment. But even the flat tax could later be amended to reintroduce outcome preferences and all the complexities that costs the US hundreds of billions in tax preparation, and some Americans their ability to organize politically.
Roskam’s right, in that the time may never be riper for tax reform. That may not mean much unless Congress wants to reform itself, and unless we as a people want to reform ourselves. In that, I have less confidence.