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.