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IRS errors aren’t funny

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Making fun of the Internal Revenue Service is too easy. The latest report of a test conducted by Treasury Department investigators doesn't help.

They posed as average taxpayers and made phone calls to the IRS with tax questions. By their count, the IRS officials they spoke to gave the wrong answer to 28 percent of those questions. In another 12 percent of the cases, the answer was correct but incomplete.

That's hardly comforting, considering the agency has the power to make your life a miserable mess if it catches you making a mistake.

But while people enjoy a good laugh at the often arrogant agency that seems to operate with far too much authority and too little oversight, there is another side that ought to be considered. Maybe IRS agents are giving out wrong answers because the tax code is too big, complicated and cumbersome for any single human being to absorb.

That isn't the IRS's fault. The agency doesn't make tax laws. Congress and the White House do that.

We haven't heard a lot about this lately. All of the talk in Washington has been about the Bush administration's tax cuts and whether to make them permanent. No one seems to be clamoring to make taxes easier to understand. And yet, when April rolls around, many Americans feel compelled to hire someone else to figure out how much they owe. Even professional tax preparers get it wrong some of the time. For many people, filling out tax forms is not brain surgery. It's much harder than that.

Three years ago, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch called for an effort to replace the tax code piece-meal over five years. He said the government could take several small, incremental steps that would make everything more simple and fair. What happened to that effort?

We understand the politics involved. Every exemption and verbal twist in the code exists to please one or another special interest. Unraveling these would take an inordinate amount of political will, about as plentiful as cheap gasoline these days.

But in the meantime, the average person needs about 13 hours to complete a Form 1040, and when that average person calls the IRS for help, he or she stands a one-in-four chance of getting a wrong answer. That's hardly any way to run a country's revenue collection. In fact, it sounds more like someone's idea of a bad joke.

Trouble is, we don't hear anybody laughing at that.