We need a permanent National Taxpayer Advocate, now.

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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.

Comments

  1. Kenneth H. Ryesky says

    Too bad that Shelley L. Davis does not seem to qualify for the position.

    https://www.heritage.org/testimony/prepared-testimony-shelley-l-davis

  2. Thanks Nina, well articulated case for action. I hope the right people are reading your post.

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