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The myth of the 70,000-page federal tax code

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

The US tax code is definitely complicated at points, so it’s no wonder that the claim that it is 70,000 pages long has become a widely cited factoid, most recently in messaging from Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee, the committee that’s leading the Republican effort to simplify and reform income taxes:

The only problem with this claim is that it’s clearly false. As of 2014, the tax code was only about 2,600 pages long. The claim that it’s 70,000 pages is based on including tens of thousands of pages about the tax code that a reasonable person would never think of as being part of the tax code itself. More to the point, there’s literally nothing the Ways and Means committee could do to reduce the 70,000-page figure. They’re being hugely misleading here.

The best explanation of this issue comes from my friend Andrew Grossman, a tax attorney at the Joint Committee on Taxation who debunked the 70,000 claim in Slate three years ago. He deals with the tax code all day every day, so he knows whereof he speaks on this matter. The internal revenue code, as published by companies like Thomson Reuters and CCH, takes up a little over 4,000 pages. The last page of the 2016 Thomson Reuters edition is 4,132. But the page numbers also jump suddenly from 527 to 1,001, and the code includes all past tax statutes, not just current laws. When you take that into account, the current code is only around 2,600 pages.

The 70,000 number adds to that IRS regulations and revenue rulings (~6,350 more pages) and, most importantly, caselaw covering court proceedings surrounding the tax code. CCH puts out a publication called the CCH Standard Federal Tax Reporter that includes the statutory code, all the regulations and revenue rulings, and all this annotated caselaw, and compiles it into one 70,000-page resource.

"Calling [the CCH Standard Federal Tax Reporter] the tax code is like calling the Constitution the length of the collected Supreme Court cases on constitutional law—or like calling the alphabet the length of the dictionary,” Grossman writes. As an example, Grossman mentions code section 7402, "Jurisdiction of District Courts," the statutory text of which is only half a page long. But the Tax Reporter includes 191 pages of editorial commentary and annotated court cases on the section. It effectively increases the apparent size of this section of the tax code 382-fold.

The Tax Foundation, which has promoted the 70,000-page figure, responded to Grossman’s article by arguing that professional tax lawyers need to know all the regulations and case law included in the Tax Reporter, which is true enough. But that has basically nothing to do with how the figure is used by actual politicians.

Look back at the Ways and Means tweet, above. The Ways and Means Committee and its chair, Kevin Brady, only have control over the statutory size of the tax code — those 2,600-odd pages (2,652 to be exact, per the Tax Foundation). It doesn’t control the precise length of the regulations that the IRS promulgates to implement that code, and it certainly doesn’t control the size of the collected caselaw.

Just as importantly, any tax simplification measures the Committee takes will not reduce the 70,000-page figure. This is clear if you examine the Tax Foundation’s chart of Tax Reporter length:

CCH Standard Federal Tax Reporter Size Tax Foundation / Joseph Henchman

You’ll note that at no point does the size shrink. Indeed, the rate of increase actually grew after the 1986 tax simplification reforms. And when you understand what the Tax Reporter actually is, that makes total sense. It includes all past tax statutes and all caselaw. It definitionally has to grow with the progression of time. Congress could enact a new one-page statutory tax code and the Tax Reporter would keep growing, and would probably grow faster as more and more cases hit the courts and individuals and corporations struggle to make sense of the new, dramatically different law.

There’s definitely something to be said for tax simplification, at least as relates to deductions and credits. The fewer tax breaks, the easier it is to do what the UK, Japan, and Germany do and eliminate tax returns for most people, and do everything through the withholding process. That’d make millions of people’s lives easier.

But House Republicans want you to believe they can make that 70,000-page figure smaller, and they just can’t.