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

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 ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSenators share their fascination with sharks at hearing Helsinki summit becomes new flashpoint for GOP anger Senate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash MORE (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 BecerraXavier BecerraJudge dismisses most of Trump administration lawsuit over California immigration laws Overnight Health Care: Trump officials want more time to reunite families | Washington braces for Supreme Court pick | Nebraska could be next state to vote on Medicaid expansion Judge rejects Trump administration's request to block California sanctuary laws MORE (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 ReidHarry Mason ReidSenate GOP breaks record on confirming Trump picks for key court Don’t worry (too much) about Kavanaugh changing the Supreme Court Dem infighting erupts over Supreme Court pick MORE (D-Nev.), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max BaucusMax Sieben BaucusJudge boots Green Party from Montana ballot in boost to Tester Clients’ Cohen ties become PR liability Green Party puts Dem seat at risk in Montana MORE (D-Mont.), Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), ranking Finance member Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchLighthizer to testify before Senate next week as trade war ramps up Senators introduce bipartisan bill to improve IRS Senate panel advances Trump IRS nominee MORE (R-Utah) and Ways and Means member Rep. Jim McDermottJames (Jim) Adelbert McDermottLobbying World Dem lawmaker: Israel's accusations start of 'war on the American government' Dem to Trump on House floor: ‘Stop tweeting’ MORE (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 EnziMichael (Mike) Bradley EnziBudget chairs press appropriators on veterans spending Forcing faith-based agencies out of the system is a disservice to women Senate takes symbolic shot at Trump tariffs MORE (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 WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenSunk judicial pick spills over into Supreme Court fight House passes measure blocking IRS from revoking churches' tax-exempt status over political activity Senators introduce bipartisan bill to improve IRS MORE (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 InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeTrump’s policies, actions create divide on Russia New EPA chief draws sharp contrast to Pruitt Senate takes symbolic shot at Trump tariffs MORE (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.