Few lawmakers file their own tax returns, citing code's complexity

Few members of Congress prepare their annual tax returns, instead relying on professional preparers, according to a survey conducted by The Hill.

The lawmakers explained it was the tax code’s complexity that had them turning to accountants for help.

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“It’s so darn complicated, and I didn’t want to miss something,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who has turned to a professional preparer after doing his own returns for years.

“I have a tax preparer back home who’s been doing it for me for many years,” said Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.). The congressman sits on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.

That sentiment is shared by much of the rest of the country. Six out of 10 people paid a professional preparer to file their returns last year, according to the IRS. Just 8 percent didn’t get any help from a tax preparer, software or IRS assistance program.

In January, IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman said during a C-SPAN interview that he does not file his own taxes in part because he believes the tax code is complex.

At its inception, the tax code was a single, 400-page book about the size of a small-town telephone directory. It now spans over 71,000 pages and commands plenty of shelf space, according to tax publisher CCH. There are 1,909 documents offered on the IRS website that pertain to taxes. There are 174 pages of instructions for form 1040, the two-page form used by individuals to file their returns.

With the additional pages come complexity, and lots of it.

Several senior lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), ranking Finance member Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Ways and Means member Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), said they turn to accountants. Many of the lawmakers said they’ve used the same accounting firm for years.

Of the 28 members of Congress who responded to survey questions from The Hill, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) was the only one who does his returns all by himself. Enzi worked as an accountant for an oil drilling company for 12 years before becoming a business executive and then entering public service.

Enzi expressed no surprise when told that his colleagues don’t go it alone.

“I know how complicated it is,” he said.

A number of lawmakers said that people turning to outside help to do an essential civic duty shows that it’s time to change the system.

“It’s just unacceptable,” said Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), who uses an accountant. “We’ve had, I think, maybe 16,000 changes [in the tax code] since ’86” — the year of the last major tax reform.

“It’s a nightmare for all people,” Voinovich added. “It should be simplified.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) saw Thursday’s tax filing deadline as an occasion to tout the tax reform plan he’s crafted with Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.). Their proposal would eliminate a slew of exemptions, cut the number of individual income tax brackets to three and allow most taxpayers to submit to the IRS nothing more than a one-page form each year.

“I have a preparer,” Wyden said. “I don’t see, with the kind of reform Sen. Gregg and I are talking about, that people would need preparers that they do now, that they do under today’s system.”

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While simplification could give more taxpayers the confidence to handle tax returns alone, it would also make the tax code a blunter object, said Roberton Williams, a former deputy assistant director for tax analysis at the Congressional Budget Office.

“The more we simplify, the less we can take into account between families and different costs,” said Williams, now a senior fellow at the Brookings-Urban Tax Policy Center.

And lawmakers who write the tax code don’t necessarily understand all of it.

Former Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) used an accountant and still found himself in political hot water for not disclosing income from a rental property.

Tax missteps were part of the reason why Rangel decided to temporarily step down from the chairmanship.

Even those lawmakers who don’t turn to outside help to do their tax returns still get lots of assistance.

Sens. George LeMieux (R-Fla.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said their wives do most of their families’ returns.

“She was the math major,” Inhofe said.

John Owre, Drew Wheatley and Jurgen Boerema contributed to this article.