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ICYMI: Do my own taxes? I would not dare!

April 16, 2013

Tax forms are too complex for members of Congress to fill out on their own, several lawmakers told The Hill.

In fact, when broached with the question, “Do you fill out your own tax forms?” most members burst out laughing before admitting it was just too complicated.

“I’m a former business lawyer,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said, adding that he’s served on tax-writing committees during his time in Congress. “I know a lot about tax policy as a result, but I would not dare to do my own taxes.”

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said: “I did taxes for other people for a long time. I could not possibly do taxes now for myself.”

He points out that it wouldn’t be prudent from him to do his own taxes because his charity foundation — the Issa Family Foundation — and his business interests make his returns complicated.

Issa, one of the wealthiest members of Congress, has done other people’s taxes in the past.
“My own, because of my foundation and other work, wouldn’t work,” he said.

Portman and Issa aren’t alone.

A report from the National Taxpayer Advocate, released in January, cited “the complexity of the tax code as the #1 most serious problem facing taxpayers.”

In 2012, nearly 60 percent of taxpayers hired paid preparers, while another 30 percent rely on commercial software, the report found.

It also noted that there are nearly 4 million words in the tax code and that, since 2011, Congress has made nearly 5,000 changes to it — an average of more than one a day.

Even the top lawmakers on the tax-writing committees, who write the laws that govern the code, admit they get outside help.

Michigan Rep. Sandy Levin, the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, uses an accountant.

“I did my own for, I would guess, 20-some years,” he said, citing complications with the alternative minimum tax as the reason he stopped.

“My daughter claims I could do it with this new technology, but when I looked at my return and how you calculate the AMT, it’s complicated.”

Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), the chairman of the Ways and Means panel, also uses an accountant, as does Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the ranking member on the Finance Committee, said he wouldn’t feel comfortable doing his own taxes.

“I just think with all the rules it’s just better to have a professional do them, and hopefully do them right,” Hatch said. “I can do them. I used to do, but it’s just a matter of making sure they’re right.”

Given the greater public scrutiny politicians are under, it makes sense many of them would have a professional check their work — making a mistake on their tax returns could be political suicide.

“I do a first draft, but then I send it to an accountant to check everything and to just make sure every i is dotted and every t is crossed,” Portman told The Hill.

“It’s fairly complicated, so I’ve always taken advantage of a professional.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who caucuses with the Democrats, does the same.

“My wife does most of them, but I do get them checked,” he said.

Every year The Hill publishes a list of the wealthiest lawmakers. Sanders’s wealth is too low to make into the top 50.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz), who falls outside the top 50 wealthiest, has his wife does the couple’s taxes, according to the congressman’s office.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) is one of the few lawmakers The Hill found that does his own taxes — although it’s a practice he won’t continue for much longer.

“I do my own,” he said, noting he uses TurboTax. “I’m pretty soon not going to do that anymore. It’s getting complicated.”

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who was one of the richest lawmakers on The Hill’s 2012 list, has a firm do his taxes.

“I, for probably close to 30 years, have had others do them. I’ve got a pretty extensive business career and I wouldn’t trust myself to do my own taxes,” he said, noting his filing usually tops more than 100 pages.

There is one group of lawmakers that does tend to fill out their own returns — those who are also CPAs. But they are the exception, not the rule.

Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.) is an accountant who does her own taxes, as do Reps. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.) and Collin Peterson (D-Minn.).

Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas) is also a CPA, but he won’t be doing his taxes this year.

Flores’s office said that “this year the Congressman will have someone else do them. In years past he has done them himself but since coming to Congress he has not had the time to do it himself.”

He’s not the only lawmaker who cited Congress’s busy schedule.

Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) said “this year I’ll probably use an accountant because I’m caught up here a lot.”

He said in the past, “it’s been a mix. In years when it’s been a little more complex I’ve used an accountant. In other years it’s been simpler, I’ve done it myself.”

And, he said, he actually filled out the forms by hand, rather than using computer software.
Several lawmakers used the question of whether they fill out their own returns to argue for tax reform.

“One more reason we need more tax reform,” Warner said.

“I wish the code was simpler so I didn’t have to,” Portman noted.