Preface: National Taxpayer Advocate’s Introductory Remarks
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On March 30, 2020, I had the honor and privilege of being sworn in as the third National Taxpayer Advocate. Starting amid a pandemic and witnessing IRS offices closing one by one was not the way I envisioned my role when I accepted the position. I, like many others, have been working remotely, and my communications with the Commissioner, other IRS leaders, and TAS employees have been conducted by phone and email. This has presented obvious challenges, but there also has been a silver lining in this experience. As I have participated in conference calls with members of my leadership team, TAS employees, and the IRS’s COVID-19 response team, I have been extraordinarily impressed by their commitment and focus on the health and safety of all employees during this pandemic while still doing as much as possible to assist taxpayers. Despite our limitations, I am proud to say the spirit of TAS employees is strong. We are making the best of the situation and continuing to work our cases as best we can. IRS personnel were in similar situations and sheltering at home, including virtually all IRS telephone assistors and many IRS campus employees. Because of these IRS staffing challenges, many TAS cases could not be resolved and will remain outstanding until campus employees can safely return to their IRS facilities. I appreciate the patience and understanding I have experienced as we all work through these unprecedented circumstances.
I want to acknowledge the tremendous job the IRS has done under these constraints. On March 25, 2020, the IRS provided taxpayers with broad relief from compliance actions under its “People First Initiative.” This relief, which currently extends through July 15, 2020, provides peace of mind to many taxpayers during this national crisis by postponing certain payments related to installment agreements and offers in compromise and by limiting certain enforcement actions. In addition, the IRS has postponed over 300 filing, payment, and other time-sensitive deadlines while undertaking to quickly disburse the Economic Impact Payments (EIPs) authorized by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act enacted on March 27, 2020. It is clear from my conference calls and the guidance the IRS is releasing that the IRS is putting taxpayers first and making meaningful efforts to provide relief to the extent possible. On behalf of taxpayers, I applaud the IRS’s efforts.
I also want to acknowledge the tremendous contributions of my predecessors — Val Oveson, who led TAS from 1998-2000, and Nina E. Olson, who led TAS from 2001-2019. Over the past 20 years, TAS has successfully assisted over 4.5 million taxpayers by helping them resolve their tax problems and protecting their rights, and it has made hundreds of administrative recommendations adopted by the IRS and some 45 legislative recommendations enacted by Congress. TAS is a great organization because of its leadership and the remarkable employees who dedicate their professional careers to compassionately advocating for taxpayers every day.
As I have been settling into my job, I am mindful of the importance of balancing my internal role and my external role. IRC § 7803(c) provides both that the National Taxpayer Advocate “shall report directly to the Commissioner” (the internal role), and that the National Taxpayer Advocate shall submit two annual reports to the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees each year “without any prior review or comment from the Commissioner, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Oversight Board, any other officer or employee of the Department of the Treasury, or the Office of Management and Budget” (the external role).
This dual-reporting responsibility provides both opportunities and challenges. The biggest opportunity is that the National Taxpayer Advocate is effectively given “two bites at the apple” to bring about systemic change on behalf of taxpayers. I can try to resolve problems internally, and if a problem doesn’t get fixed, I can bring it to the attention of Congress and the public. The related challenge is creating a relationship of trust with IRS leaders. If IRS leaders believe comments they make or documents they share during internal discussions will be publicly disclosed, they may be reluctant to trust the National Taxpayer Advocate and to work collaboratively with TAS. This is a nuanced and ongoing tension, as I am sure my predecessors know well, but as I start the position, my approach will be to work issues internally as best I can and to raise concerns publicly only after the IRS and TAS have reached an impasse. Based on my early discussions with Commissioner Rettig and other leaders, I am optimistic we can find solutions to many taxpayer problems by working together as much as possible.
During my 35 years of tax advocacy, I have come to understand and appreciate the wisdom of Commissioner Mortimer Caplin’s principles for effective tax administration, which he set forth 56 years ago in Revenue Procedure 64-22.3. It is an eloquent articulation of the IRS’s role to perform its work in a fair and impartial manner, with neither a government nor a taxpayer point of view and with the responsibility to apply and administer the law in a reasonable, practical manner with great courtesy and consideration. While proper tax administration is key to ensuring a tax system that is fair and impartial to taxpayers, it is the job of the National Taxpayer Advocate and TAS to advocate for taxpayers to ensure their rights are protected. The Taxpayer Bill of Rights and the Taxpayer First Act (TFA) underscore the guiding principle that taxpayer rights are the cornerstone for an effective tax administration. I am proud to advocate for taxpayers’ rights and to work toward improving the taxpayer experience to ensure a fair and just tax administration.
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