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 ThunePolls: Hiking estate tax less popular than taxing mega wealth, income Will Trump sign the border deal? Here's what we know Key GOP senator pitches Trump: Funding deal a 'down payment' on wall 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 BecerraNY, California and Washington threaten to sue over Trump rule to restrict abortion referrals Trump bans abortion providers, referrals from family planning program Kamala Harris: Trump administration ‘targeting’ California for political purposes 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 ReidHarry Reid says he won’t make 2020 endorsement until after Nevada caucus Sanders hires veteran progressive operative to manage 2020 bid Constitutional conservatives need to oppose the national emergency MORE (D-Nev.), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max BaucusMax Sieben BaucusOvernight Defense: McCain honored in Capitol ceremony | Mattis extends border deployment | Trump to embark on four-country trip after midterms Congress gives McCain the highest honor Judge boots Green Party from Montana ballot in boost to Tester MORE (D-Mont.), Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), ranking Finance member Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchThe FDA crackdown on dietary supplements is inadequate Orrin Hatch Foundation seeking million in taxpayer money to fund new center in his honor Mitch McConnell has shown the nation his version of power grab 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 EnziWill Senate GOP try to pass a budget this year? Presumptive benefits to Blue Water Navy veterans are a major win If single payer were really a bargain, supporters like Rep. John Yarmuth would be upfront about its cost 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 WydenOvernight Health Care — Presented by National Taxpayers Union — Top Dems call for end to Medicaid work rules | Chamber launching ad blitz against Trump drug plan | Google offers help to dispose of opioids Top Dems call for end to Medicaid work rules after 18,000 lose coverage in Arkansas Overnight Health Care — Presented by National Taxpayers Union — Drug pricing fight centers on insulin | Florida governor working with Trump to import cheaper drugs | Dems blast proposed ObamaCare changes 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 InhofeAllies wary of Shanahan's assurances with looming presence of Trump On The Money: Trump to sign border deal, declare emergency to build wall | Senate passes funding bill, House to follow | Dems promise challenge to emergency declaration Trump to sign border deal, declare national emergency 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.