We need a permanent National Taxpayer Advocate, now.

Contributor Nina Olson returns with her thoughts on the importance of filling the vacancy at the head of the Taxpayer Advocate Service.

This week, the acting National Taxpayer Advocate released the 2019 Annual Report to Congress, on the heels of the IRS’s release of its own “annual report” about its performance. Reading the two documents together, one wonders whether they are reporting on the same agency. The NTA’s report focuses on the challenges the agency faces and makes concrete recommendations about how to address them; the IRS’s report celebrates the agency’s performance over the last year and how it is on track to fulfill the goals of its 2018 to 2022 strategic plan. One report is forward looking; the other is a status update.

I’ll be scouring the contents of both reports over the next month or so, but their arrival reminds me of the important and unique role the National Taxpayer Advocate (NTA) plays in U.S. tax administration today. The NTA is the protector of taxpayer rights and, according to the National Commission on Restructuring the IRS, serves as the “voice of the taxpayer” inside the agency. Each of the Most Serious Problems, Most Litigated Issues, and Legislative Recommendations in the NTA’s 2019 Annual Report to Congress is prefaced with the relevant rights enunciated in the Taxpayer Bill of Rights; they form the framework for analysis. On the other hand, the IRS annual report doesn’t get around to mentioning “taxpayer rights” until page 12. Tellingly, the words “taxpayer rights” do not appear in any of the strategic goals listed in the annual report, nor are they listed among the “core values” of the agency.

This contrast highlights why it is so important to have a permanent National Taxpayer Advocate in place, to hold the IRS’s feet to the fire about promotion and protection of taxpayer rights, especially as it hires more audit and collection employees and launches new compliance and enforcement initiatives. The NTA is the person at the table of the IRS senior leadership who is charged (by Congress) with reminding the IRS that its primary job is to promote voluntary compliance, that enforcement revenue only counts for about 2 percent of all revenue collected, that the vast majority of U.S. taxpayers are trying to comply with the mind-numbingly complex tax laws, and that personal assistance and education is a, if not the, most significant factor in enabling these taxpayers to meet their obligations.

That is why it is so disturbing that there is no permanent NTA appointed by the Secretary of the Treasury, a full nine months after I announced my retirement as the NTA. On March 1, 2019, I publicly informed Treasury, the IRS, and everyone else that I would be retiring on July 31, 2019. I announced my retirement that early, against the counsel of several of my closest advisors and friends who feared I might become a “lame duck,” because I believed it was important to have a successor named and ready to assume the duties immediately upon my retirement. I knew of several highly qualified people interested in the job, and indeed, the recruitment process identified several excellent candidates. At the time of my retirement, I knew of three excellent candidates who were on a very short list.

So what happened? Why is there no NTA? I have no clue. What I do know is that despite the excellent interim leadership of the Taxpayer Advocate Service, no acting NTA can do the job as Congress envisioned. Indeed, Bridget Roberts, the acting NTA, states in the 2019 Annual Report, “As in other organizations, acting leaders are caretakers — charged with keeping the trains running on time but lacking the authority to make significant changes and often not taken as seriously as permanent officials.”

Let’s take a step back and look at what Congress did in 1998 when it amended IRC 7803(c), the statute that lays out the requirements for and duties of the Office of the Taxpayer Advocate. Congress made changes to this statute after widespread dissatisfaction with the then-Taxpayer Advocate structure surfaced in the hearings before the National Commission on Restructuring the Internal Revenue Service. In the chapter titled “Taxpayer Rights,” the Commission outlined these concerns:

Currently, the national Taxpayer Advocate is not viewed as independent by many in Congress. This view is based in part on the placement of the Advocate within the IRS and the fact that only career employees have been chosen to fill the position. Because a candidate for the job is likely to have additional career ambitions at the IRS after performing the Advocate position, it is difficult to perceive the Advocate as independent when the position is regarded as just another assignment for an IRS executive, with the Commissioner viewing his or her performance as determining the next position. Additionally, while the Advocate has provided recommendations for improvements at the IRS, these recommendations merely tend to highlight ongoing IRS corrective efforts with little in the way of recommendations that focus attention on issues that the IRS either is doing nothing or its efforts are inadequate. Finally, what recommendations the Advocate has provided have limited value because they do not prescribe specific legislative or administrative corrections.

A Vision for a New IRS, Report of the National Commission on Restructuring the Internal Revenue Service, June 25, 1997, at 43.

Congress addressed these concerns in the Internal Revenue Service Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998. It sought to ensure the independence of the Advocate by radically transforming the Office of the Taxpayer Advocate into an independent organization within the IRS. IRC 7803(c) explicitly lays out the requirements for appointment of the NTA and the qualifications of the person who fills that position. (By the way, 7803(c) is longer than 7803(a) or (b) which govern the positions of Commissioner and Chief Counsel, respectively. 7803(a) was recently lengthened by the addition of 7803(a)(3), which requires the Commissioner to ensure that IRS employees “are familiar with and act in accord with taxpayer rights ….”)

  • First, the National Taxpayer Advocate “shall be appointed by the Secretary of the Treasury after consultation with Commissioner of Internal Revenue and the Oversight Board and without regard to the provisions of title 5, United States Code, relating to appointments in the competitive servicer or the Senior Executive Service.”
  • Second, the NTA cannot have worked for the IRS for 2 years immediately preceding the appointment or 5 years immediately after leaving the position (there is an exception for current employees of TAS).
  • Third, the NTA must have the following experience: “(I) a background in customer service as well as tax law; and (II) experience in representing individual taxpayers.” (7803(c)(1)(B)(iii))

Thus, according to the law, the Secretary can make this appointment without it being nominated by the President or confirmed by the Senate. The usual hiring processes for federal civil service or Senior Executive Service do not apply – the Secretary merely needs to make his or her decision, sign an appointment document, and that’s it. Obviously, there should be a background check, and ultimately a tax check and tax audit, but the appointment of the NTA is one of the least bureaucratic in the federal government. So bureaucratic hurdles are not an excuse for the delay in appointing the Advocate.

It is interesting to note that Congress sought to balance the voices that the Secretary listened to in making his or her appointment decision. Not only is that decision made in consultation with the Commissioner, but also the Oversight Board weighs in. When I was under consideration for the position in late 2000, I was interviewed by the Commissioner several times, and had a lengthy interview with a subpanel of the Oversight Board. The Commissioner produced a memo for the Secretary recommending my appointment, and the Oversight Board produced a 27-page report (if recollection serves) including observations about each of the candidates and ultimately recommending my appointment. Thus, the Secretary had ample information with which to make his decision.

Today, there is no functioning Oversight Board. The Secretary only has the consultation of the Commissioner. The Commissioner’s statutory duty is to “administer, manage, conduct, direct, and supervise the execution and application of the internal revenue laws…” One of the Oversight Board’s statutory responsibilities is “[t]o ensure the proper treatment of taxpayers by the employees of the Internal Revenue Service.” The Oversight Board brings this perspective to the selection process for the NTA. While the Commissioner may factor this in to his or her recommendation, the loss of the Oversight Board’s perspective means that the Secretary only has the IRS’s official perspective to rely on. The balance that RRA 98 brought to the selection process is missing.

Which brings me back to my original observation about the two reports released this week.

The NTA’s statutory duty is to assist taxpayers in resolving their problems with the IRS and to identify and make administrative and legislative recommendations to mitigate such problems. [7803(c)(2)(A)(i)-(iv)]. The National Taxpayer Advocate’s Annual Report to Congress is the key vehicle for fulfilling that duty. In the words of the Restructuring Commission, the NTA must “focus attention on issues that the IRS either is doing nothing or its efforts are inadequate.” In order to do this well, Congress has required that the NTA has experience in representing individual taxpayers. That is, the NTA must have sat across the table from the IRS and knows what it is like to be an individual taxpayer battling the IRS bureaucracy. The NTA must have experienced firsthand the pain of taxpayers. A successful NTA brings that knowledge and experience to every meeting with IRS officials and employees and never lets them forget it.

Today, no matter how articulate and talented TAS leadership is, that strong, independent, experienced voice, carrying with it the authority of the Secretary’s appointment, is missing as the IRS embarks on its enforcement “build” and drafts the numerous reports required by the Taxpayer First Act. This is something all of us who practice in and study the field of tax should care about.

We need a strong, qualified National Taxpayer Advocate. Now.

Acting NTA Blog Highlights Role of TAS Recommendations on Taxpayer First Act Legislation and Challenges That The IRS Faces

Acting National Taxpayer Advocate Bridget Roberts’ recent blog post Highlights of the Taxpayer First Act and Its Impact on TAS and Taxpayer Rights discusses some of the main TFA provisions, including the impact of TFA on TAS and how many of TAS’ past recommendations have had a direct impact on the legislative changes.  While many of the provisions of TFA influence tax policy and administration rather than directly impacting tax procedure, the policy and administration changes will have direct and indirect influences on the tax procedures facing taxpayers and practitioners.

The post includes useful links to some of the major TFA changes. Some of the provisions are starting to generate litigation (see, for example, what evidence the Tax Court can consider in innocent spouse cases, a topic that PT has covered already a few times –see Christine’s discussion at TFA Update: Innocent Spouse Tangles Begin.)

In this post I will highlight the key parts of the post as well as offer some brief comments on some of the challenges the IRS faces as it marches toward meeting the TFA requirement of reporting on customer service and modernization.

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Highlights of NTA Post

First, the post is a reminder of how important TAS’s reports have been over the years as a contributing factor to legislative change. The Acting NTA notes that about 25 provisions within TFA were “recommended or strongly supported by the NTA or TAS.” The NTA blog post has a handy table with the TFA provisions, as well as links to underlying TAS work that relates to the TFA provisions.

Second, the post emphasizes that a few of the TFA changes directly implicate TAS, including the following:

  1. New rules on the next permanent NTA’s salary to limit the possibility that an NTA will face a personal financial conflict of interest when interacting with the Commissioner,
  2. A codification of the Taxpayer Advocate Directive (TAD) authority to make somewhat analogous the NTA’s ability to elevate systemic issues with its ability to raise individual case matters in Taxpayer Assistance Orders,
  3. Reducing the NTA’s annual reporting requirement on the most serious problems from 20 to 10,
  4. Requiring coordination with TIGTA on research studies, and
  5. Requiring the IRS to provide statistical support on TAS research studies, and requiring the NTA in the research reports to report in whether the IRS provided the support and determined the validity of the information.

Finally, the post praises for IRS and the way it is prioritizing implementing some of TFA’s sweeping changes, including the setting up of a dedicated “office within the IRS to oversee and coordinate the agency’s TFA implementation efforts.” While noting that the office includes the Commissioner’s Chief of Staff and executives from W&I, SBSE and IT, the Acting NTA notes one concern:

My one concern is that TAS has not been included as a core member of the TFA implementation team. Congress created the position of the NTA to serve as the statutory voice of the taxpayer within the IRS. To implement the aptly named “Taxpayer First Act,” I believe TAS should have a seat at the table to the same extent as key IRS operating divisions, particularly for purposes of implementing the TFA requirements that the IRS develop a comprehensive customer service strategy, modernize the IRS’s organizational structure, create online taxpayer accounts, and develop a comprehensive employee training strategy that includes taxpayer rights.

Concluding Brief Thoughts on TFA and Challenges the IRS Faces

In the run up to TFA and its requirement that IRS report on modernizing its structure and customer service strategy, IRS has dedicated a significant amount of time and energy around these issues. To that end see, for example the 2019 IRS Integrated Modernization Business Plan, released a few months before TFA became law this past summer. Part of the business plan had its origin in the IRS Future State initiative, as the GAO discussed in a 2018 letter with the subject Tax Administration: Status of IRS Future State Division to Senators Hatch and Wyden. That letter provides a nice historical perspective on Future State and its rebranding. Future State was a topic that inspired the recently retired NTA Nina Olson to conduct nationwide forums, which was a Special Focus in the NTA’s 2016 Annual Report to Congress.

In an era of scarce resources and rapid technological changes, tax administrators worldwide are focusing on how to efficiently deliver services. Online tools offer the promise of taxpayers able to help themselves, and minimize costly person-to-person exchanges.

Yet, one of the key themes that emerges from reading the transcripts of the 12 TAS led public forums on taxpayer needs and preferences is that there is a wide range of taxpayer resources and skills. Failing to recognize those differences when building models of service and enforcement can have an outsize impact on vulnerable taxpayers.

A Pew Research Center piece from earlier this year highlights the differing levels of access to technology across income classes, as well as the different ways that lower income individuals access the internet (see below). Simply put, lower income individuals have less access to the internet. When they do access the internet, they are often dependent on smart phones rather than tablets, laptops or desktops. The reliance on smart phones for internet access for more vulnerable taxpayers, combined with how important refundable credits are to the economic welfare of low and moderate income Americans, means that a tax system that fails to recognize the preferences and needs of these taxpayers is likely to fail to deliver quality service to many taxpayers who most need it.

This is a key challenge for those who are charged with the responsibility of ensuring that we have a 21st century tax system that delivers to all taxpayers. There is no simple way to build a world class tax system, especially one that is charged with not just collecting revenues (a herculean task in itself) but also a system that is responsible for delivering benefits that can mean the difference between living in and out of poverty.

Status of Several Issues Pushed by TAS

As regular readers of the blog know, we published reflections on the tenure of Nina Olson throughout the month of July leading up to her retirement.  The reflections came from many different perspectives and offered a variety of thoughts on her tenure.  Thank you to everyone who wrote a reflection or commented on the site.  On her last day, Nina published a blog post providing an update on a number of issues she was working to resolve before she left.  If you have not read her final blog post as NTA, it’s worth reading to learn where the issues stand if you are following an issue about which she commented.  I will briefly recap them below to allow you to decide if she wrote on an issue close to your heart.

One of the issues Nina pushed during her time as NTA was taxpayer rights.  Paul Harrison, the director of the low income taxpayer clinic at Ladder Up in Chicago, wrote a reflection on Nina as a song focusing primarily on taxpayer rights.  The song is included in this post as well.

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Private Debt Collection

On this issue Congress stepped up and took care of a major concern raised by Nina.  It excluded from the list of accounts that the IRS should refer to the private debt collectors taxpayers falling below 200% of poverty.  It also excluded certain taxpayers receiving means tested income.  These changes definitely benefit the low income individuals who will no longer be receiving the multitude of contacts from the collectors.  I think they also benefit the PDCs and the IRS.  Chasing most of these individuals for payment is, more often than not, a losing proposition.

Training on Taxpayer Rights

I have written before about cases in which taxpayers have argued that TBOR has the “teeth” to stop the IRS from certain action or behavior.  In those cases the IRS argues that TBOR lacks teeth to allow the court to stop its action and the taxpayer argues that for TBOR to have meaning it must stop certain types of behavior.  If TBOR has any teeth, it certainly should have teeth regarding the training of IRS employees on the enumerated rights since that is discussed in the statute. Congress stepped in again here and ordered the IRS to develop a plan for training employees on taxpayer rights.

Exclusion of TAS Open Cases from Passport Certification

The IRS has administratively and temporarily pulled cases from the passport certification process if the taxpayer is working with TAS to resolve the issue.  This is a good result for taxpayers trying actively to work out their cases.  It will be interesting to watch and she if this becomes a permanent practice or just a temporary experiment.

Economic Hardship Indicator

Nina sought to have the IRS tag the accounts of qualifying taxpayers and to stop affirmative collection from people with the indicator.  She marks this as unfinished business since the IRS did not adopt her recommendation.

TAS Attorney Hiring Prohibition

Nina hired a number of attorneys to work with her within TAS.  Starting in 2015 Treasury basically stopped allowing her to hire attorneys to work directly under the NTA.  She did not succeed in changing the Treasury policy before she left.  This issue does not have a direct impact on practice before the IRS but, obviously, impacts the functioning of TAS.

Internal Revenue Manual Chapters on Taxpayer Assistance Orders and Taxpayer Advocate Directives

Nina has proposed some changes to the operation of TAOs which the IRS has not yet accepted.

Transparency of Chief Counsel Guidance

In 1998 Congress required many advisory opinions issued by Chief Counsel’s Office be made public.  Some advice is still not seeing the light of day.  Nina suggests that changes are forthcoming.

Conclusion

The details are in her blog post.  The purpose of this post is to alert you to the issues she discusses in case one or more of those issues is of interest to you.   

Now for the promised song about taxpayer rights:

(What’s so Funny ‘Bout) Asserting Taxpayer Rights?

(To the tune of (What’s so Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding? By Nick Lowe. Famously covered by Elvis Costello & the Attractions of whom, I’ve been told on good authority, the erstwhile NTA was a fan.)

As I read through
The IRC
Searchin’ for fairness or a bit of integrity

I ask myself
Is all hope lost
Is there only debt, dis’lowance, and inequity?

And each time
I feel like this inside,
There’s only one thing I wanna know:

What’s so funny ‘bout asserting taxpayer ri-ights? Ohh!
What’s so funny ‘bout asserting taxpayer ri-ights?

And as I walked on
Through troubled seas
I’m so glad I found the LITC
‘Cause they the strong
And they are the trusted
And they are the LITC
Sweet LITC!

‘cause each time another notice arrives, just makes me wanna cry.
What’s so funny ‘bout asserting taxpayer ri-ights? Ohh!
What’s so funny ‘bout asserting taxpayer ri-ights?

‘Cause they the strong
And they are the trusted
And they are the LITC
Sweet LITC!

‘cause each time another notice arrives, just makes me wanna cry.
What’s so funny ‘bout asserting taxpayer ri-ights/ Ohh!
What’s so funny ‘bout asserting taxpayer ri-ights?

A Message from the National Taxpayer Advocate

Friends and Colleagues,

I have been thinking what I can say to everyone who has been writing “reflections” throughout this month, and I have been having a hard time finding words.  Let me just say I am overwhelmed.  It has been my privilege to be part of a journey along which I have met so many fine people, who have dedicated their lives and made sacrifices to protect taxpayer rights, who care about access to justice and the fundamental fairness of the tax system.

 It is to you all that I owe thanks and appreciation.  That I have in some way been able to influence peoples’ lives and choices was never anything I set out to do, and I am just humbled and a bit astonished to read folks’ reflections.  I look forward to working with you all going forward, in my next step, through the Center for Taxpayer Rights.  You can reach me at neo@taxpayer-rights.org.

Nina

Reflections on the Impact of Nina Olson by Armando Gomez

We welcome Armando Gomez to provide this reflection on Nina on her final work day as National Taxpayer Advocate.  Armando is a partner with Skadden Arps and a former chair of the ABA Tax Section.  He was instrumental in Nina’s appointment to the position of National Taxpayer Advocate and so provides a perfect capstone to the reflections this month.    Keith

I first met Nina Olson some twenty-three years ago when, as a young lawyer for the National Commission on Restructuring the Internal Revenue Service, I was introduced to her by Janet Spragens. Just a few years out of law school, I had much to learn, and Nina and Janet were happy to educate me on what needed to be done to provide fairness and due process for taxpayers who could not afford to engage counsel to help them navigate the labyrinth that is the tax controversy process. The recommendations that they made to the Commission lead to important provisions of the 1998 Restructuring Act. More importantly, when it came time for the Secretary of the Treasury to appoint a National Taxpayer Advocate, Nina’s name quickly made it to the top of the list.

The Restructuring Commission’s mandate from Congress was to make recommendations for modernizing the IRS and improving its efficiency and taxpayer services. One of the lawyers working with me on the Commission’s staff had studied under Professor Spragens at American University’s Washington College of Law, and he invited her to meet with me to explain how tax clinics were starting to help fill a huge void in the tax system for unrepresented taxpayers. Janet introduced me to Nina, who wowed us all with her energy, determination and imagination. Through their advocacy, the Commission recommended that Congress enact various enhancements to the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, and to establish a matching grant program to support the development and expansion of low income taxpayer clinics. These recommendations, which were enacted as part of the 1998 Restructuring Act, were among the most meaningful and lasting changes that resulted from the Commission’s work.

Not long thereafter, when the IRS needed a new National Taxpayer Advocate, I received a call from former Deputy Commissioner Mike Murphy, who was helping to identify potential candidates for that role. It was obvious to me that Nina was already one of the nation’s leading taxpayer advocates, and Mike encouraged me to explore with her the possibility of putting her name in the hat for this appointment. Happily for all of us who care about the tax system, Nina eagerly accepted the challenge, and the rest is history. Nina tells this story a little differently, but what matters is not how she was appointed as the NTA, but that she received the appointment and made the most of it, building a lasting legacy that will benefit generations of taxpayers.

As reflected in the many tributes that have appeared on this blog, and as has been heard throughout the nation over the past months since Nina announced her retirement, Nina Olson has worked tirelessly as the National Taxpayer Advocate, working inside and outside of the IRS to bring attention to and address systemic problems. Although her predecessor did much to help establish the Taxpayer Advocate Service, Nina has forged TAS with her vision of how the organization can work proactively to ensure that all taxpayers get a fair shake, and to shine a bright light on problems requiring legislative solutions.

When the House Ways & Committee’s Oversight Subcommittee held a hearing on July 24, 1997 to consider the recommendations of the Restructuring Commission, then Senator Bob Kerrey, one of the two co-chairs of the Commission, testified that “there are twice as many people who pay taxes as vote” and that “Citizens’ faith that their government can be fair and efficient is dependent on a well-functioning IRS.” (Hearing before the Subcommittee on Oversight of the Committee on Ways & Means, House of Representatives, July 24, 1997 at 4.) Now more than ever, our Nation’s faith in government is being tested regularly. Fortunately, Nina Olson has helped to build important safeguards into the tax system to protect the rights of all taxpayers. She, more than anyone else, has helped to implement the “vision for a new IRS” contemplated in the 1997 report of the Restructuring Commission, and for that Nina will have the lasting thanks and gratitude of all of us who care about the tax system.

Reflections on the Impact of Nina Olson as National Taxpayer Advocate by Jack Manhire

Jack Manhire is currently the Assistant Vice President for Entrepreneurship and Economic Development, and the Assistant Dean and Chief of Staff of the School of Innovation at Texas A&M University. He has held previous and courtesy positions at Texas A&M’s School of Law and the Bush School of Government & Public Service, along with faculty fellowships at the Colleges of Medicine and Architecture. He has also held positions at the IRS and the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Nina Olson: Tax Administration Innovator

There have been so many great reflections on the impact of Nina Olson as National Taxpayer Advocate on this blog, I wanted to add one from someone who worked directly for her at the Taxpayer Advocate Service. I had the honor for working for Nina first as one of her Attorney-Advisors, and then as the Director of Technical Analysis and Guidance for TAS.

For some, Nina can come across as an intimidating boss; one who demands perfection and is personally involved in almost every aspect of TAS operations. But this is not a criticism. In fact, Nina’s leadership style mirrors many of our country’s greatest innovators (e.g., Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, etc.).

Working for her, I soon learned that what one might see as “demanding perfection” is actually a relentless dedication to the mission of TAS; a mission that she created singe-handedly. Her “hands on” involvement reflects her tenacious perseverance to the mission, and reflects her demand that the flames of that mission not merely stay lit, but rise and spread through the inspired dedication of her employees.

These are necessary attributes of a successful innovator, and also those of an entrepreneurial builder. Recall that the very first Annual Report to Congress (what we called the “ARC”), was every word written by Nina herself. This is because she wanted to ensure that she set the tone and example for future ARCs. She had the foresight to treat the annual report requirement as not a statutory chore, but an opportunity to innovate from within the IRS for the taxpayers to whom she has dedicated so much of her life.

And that entrepreneurial spirit never left. While future ARCs benefitted from a robust research and legal staff, every single theme, opinion, and suggestion was from first to last Nina’s project. I know this sounds amazing given that many of the annual reports were pushing 1,000 pages, but it is true and further testifies to Nina’s immense intellectual capacity.

And so, from my current chair, I see Nina as one of the great American innovators. Her vision and tireless effort produced innovations within the IRS, within the tax code, and within our public understanding of taxpayer rights that will inform future policy. There was a great deal to learn from Nina, and my own career ambitions at the time stunted some of those opportunities. But Nina was always there, not only to drive the message, mission, and vision personally, but also to care for her people and give them every opportunity to develop and succeed.

It is unlikely we will see another public policy and tax administration innovator such as Nina Olson any time soon. Her legacy is just too great to duplicate; and much of that legacy has only recently taken root. The next 10 to 20 years will reveal the far-reaching impact of her vision and tireless work.

Stay purple!

Reflections on the Impact of Nina Olson by Sheri Dillon

Today we welcome Sheri Dillon as our guest blogger to provide her reflection on the tenure of Nina Olson as National Taxpayer Advocate. Sheri is a partner with the Washington, D.C. office of Morgan Lewis where she specializes in tax controversy and has some significant clients. Sheri is also a person committed to pro bono work. She, and her partner Jennifer Breen, started a tax clinic to assist low income taxpayers in the DC area. She is the incoming vice chair of the ABA Tax Section in charge of pro bono matters for the Section. Keith

When I think of Nina, and the profound impact she has had on justice and fair tax administration for all, I come back to the same question. How did she do it? In reviewing the posts this past month on Procedurally Taxing, from my perspective, the answer can be summed up in one word: grit. Grit is passion, perseverance, courage, conscientiousness, and resilience. Simply stated, grit is refusing to take no for an answer.

I can’t think of anyone who embodies grit more than Nina. I am hoping to learn from Nina’s example, borrow some of her grit and make it my own. Like many private practitioners, it’s hard to find the time to take on the pro bono matters that I would like to. And when I am able to take them on, it’s frustrating to often find that I don’t have the tax knowledge or skills base to help them. Thanks to Nina, there exists a community of low-income taxpayer clinicians, as well as the Taxpayer Advocate Service, standing by ready and willing to help.

Also thanks to Nina, we can see that real change can be brought to a bureaucracy and tax administration agency as large and unwieldy as the Internal Revenue Service. And, as Nina demonstrated, some of that change can come from the outside – from tax practitioners, taxpayers, lawmakers, and the courts. I am hoping to work this next year to see what change I can help effect that will further the objective of equal access to justice and representation in matters before the Service.

Nina’s life work, coupled with her grit, created a system that provides representation for many of our low-income taxpayers – defined by Congress as those whose incomes do not exceed 250% of the poverty guidelines. While this has tremendously helped our most vulnerable taxpayers, it still leaves many taxpayers without representation and forced to pay more tax than they should under the tax law. Which raises the question – how can we ensure that taxpayers whose income exceeds 250% of the poverty guidelines but nonetheless can’t afford representation, are nonetheless represented? I don’t have the answer to this question, but am hoping to gather my grit, and work – along with the tax bar – to find the answer.

Reflection on the Impact of Nina Olson by Soreé Finley

We welcome Soreé Finley a senior attorney in the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy. Soreé’s personal recollection of her first encounter with Nina reminds us how hard it is to start in a new area of practice. Keith

I can’t remember the exact year of my first LITC conference. I do however remember the elevator ride to the Hilton’s meeting rooms: There are several attendees on the elevator, all hoping to be seated by 8:30am. I am a new attorney and I want to impress my LITC Director with my timeliness, but I’m struggling with the early start time.

I walk into this big meeting room and there’s a nervous and excited energy among the attendants. I’m nervous too, of course—it’s my first legal conference and I’m in a room full of attorneys. As I look for my table, I keep hearing the word “N.I.N.A.”, and figure it’s one more IRS acronym I’ll have to learn.

I sit at my table as my watch displays 8:30. Someone approaches the podium and the room goes silent. It’s Nina—not N.I.N.A.—Olson, the National Taxpayer Advocate. For the first time, but not the last, I am blown away by her profound and contagious commitment to taxpayer advocacy.

Years after my first introduction to Ms. Olson, I am still inspired by her courage and willingness to ensure taxpayers and tax practitioners have a positive and consistent experience when interfacing with the IRS. There are millions of taxpayers who may never know Nina Olson’s name, but her legacy and impact on taxpayer advocacy will continue long after she retires.