For a long time, a key marketing element of House Republicans’ tax reform push was the notion that they would write a tax code so simple you could fill out your taxes on a postcard. This was always pretty silly on a number of levels, but it at least offered a kind of plausible story that leadership could tell its members about why they were being asked to vote for legislation, as they did last year, that raised taxes on teachers who buy school supplies for their classrooms, parents who adopt kids, graduate student teaching assistants, and a range of other sympathetic figures.
Senate Republicans, being a more pragmatic lot, ultimately removed many of these kinds of politically toxic provisions from the bill that Donald Trump signed into law in December. The final law has the downside of invalidating the postcard promise. Interestingly, that has not caused the House GOP to drop the claim — they’ve simply rolled out a new and much dumber postcard.
Here’s the postcard they tweeted out on January 6:
RT if you’re excited to have a fair and simple tax code. One that works in your favor and not against. #2059more https://t.co/vTnOQg1q8X pic.twitter.com/qsywzSPeQV— House Republicans (@HouseGOP) January 6, 2018
This is a simple 17-line form.
But virtually every line requires you to consult some other calculation — often with no clear instructions. On line two, for example, they don’t specify which savings plans are the “specified savings plans” that you are allowed to subtract or give you any indications of where you find the answer. On line six, they tell you that you can deduct your state and local taxes, but they forgot to mention that the amount you can write down here is now capped at $10,000 (previously it was unlimited, though for some taxpayers the existence of the alternative minimum tax served as a de facto limit). A resident of a high-tax state unfortunate enough to actually rely on this postcard might accidentally underpay taxes and end up owing penalty fees to the IRS.
Line eight, however, is the one that really gives the game away. Because they elected to actually not eliminate tons of small-time deductions that all have their own little constituencies, there’s no way you could come close to actually listing every conceivable deduction on a postcard. Realistically, people who want to itemize deductions are going to need to use tax prep software or consult a professional — just like they do now. They sweep all of the complexity under the rug with a vague “subtract other deductions,” but of course you can do anything on a postcard if you wave away all the details.
After that, they’re barely even trying. You need to use a tax table (they don’t tell you where to find it) to actually calculate your preliminary tax. There’s no explanation at all of how the investment income provisions of the tax code work. Three tax credits are detailed, but their postcard doesn’t say anything about what the credits are worth, who can claim them, or under what circumstances. And for whatever reason, they just left the entire question of the tax treatment of pass-through business entities off the postcard even though it’s a centerpiece of the legislation.
Or, rather, they left it off because the whole postcard idea is dumb and they didn’t bother to put much effort into it.
The whole postcard idea is dumb
For starters, an obvious problem with doing your taxes on a postcard is that you’d be putting a lot of private financial information down on a card that anyone could read, photograph, pass around, etc.
Whatever you do with your taxes, you’re going to want to put the paper in an envelope. An envelope would also let you include a check (if necessary) so that you could actually pay your taxes, which is an important part of the process.
This is presumably why the House GOP plan puts “postcard” in scare quotes. But when you look at the “postcard,” you’ll see that it doesn’t have a place for you to enter basic stuff like your name, address, Social Security number, or spouse’s name (if applicable). There’s also no signature line. Once you add all that stuff in, you see that you’re going to need a full sheet of paper — just like IRS Form 1040EZ, which already exists and offers most taxpayers a relatively simple way to file.
More broadly, however, the way tax enforcement works is that your employer(s), bank(s), and brokerage(s) file their own paperwork with the IRS, which tells them how much money you’ve been paid, how much mortgage interest you owe, etc. That lets the IRS get a decent look at whether you’re cheating on your taxes. It also would let the IRS do what many other countries do and simply tabulate what you owe and tell you. It would, of course, be reasonable to let any citizen who wants to challenge the IRS’s calculations do so and prepare their own alternate tax return. But most of us could probably just check a box and be done with it.
The reason that doesn’t happen is the tax preparation industry doesn’t want to lose clients — and they usually get an assist from Grover Norquist and other anti-tax activists who want to make the taxation process as annoying as possible. But that, rather than anything about the code itself, is what is stopping Congress from making the actual filing process easier.