Perhaps it was the reading aloud of a certain seminal document in the House of Representatives that inspired an article in Smart Money magazine that asks: Is our tax system too complex to be constitutional? Citizens of the U.S. have the right to understand their laws.
Indeed, a 1926 Supreme Court decision made this right abundantly clear:
“[A] statute which either forbids or requires the doing of an act in terms so vague that men of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning and differ as to its application, violates the first essential of due process of law.”
Nobody can understand the tax code. It has five times as many words as the King James Bible and more regulations, these with the force of law. No wonder even the commissioner of the I.R.S. admitted that he has to hire somebody to do his taxes!
There’s no way you can win in court by not paying your taxes and then claiming that you didn’t understand the tax code.
“You’d never get that argument in front of a judge,” says Daniel Pilla, a tax litigation consultant and the author of 11 books, including “The IRS Problem Solver.”
Procedurally, Pilla says, the effort would go something like this (and he strongly recommends against anyone going down this path). A citizen would pay their tax as usual and then file for a refund. In the claim he’d state his case that the complexity of the code is a violation of due process of law as protected by the 5th Amendment.
At that point, the IRS would almost surely fine the filer $5,000 for trying, says Pilla. (Its list of frivolous claims specifically refutes the argument that taxes constitute a taking of property without due process, although it says nothing about the complexity argument. The National Taxpayer Advocate’s office would only forward the frivolous claims literature.) After the IRS turns down the claim, the filer could sue in federal court, at which point, says Pilla, the case would surely get “bounced.” That is, the U.S. government would file a motion for summary judgment saying the issue is settled by existing case law.
“Not a day goes by that I’m not stuck in some book trying to figure out what the hell the tax code means,” says Pilla. “Judges admit it’s too complicated in their rulings when they refer to it with words like ‘Byzantine.’ Everyone knows it’s unfair, but you’d never be allowed to argue that in court.”
Still, I have recently embraced what I view as my Tipping Point Theory of Practically Everything. Everything in government has become so huge that it is ready to tip over. The recent 2,000-plus-page health care legislation, the tax code, budgets for states-all too large to understand, too large to pay for, and strong evidence of too big staffs who have the time to create these disasters. You don’t need to make a constitutional argument to urge that the 112th Congress begin the process of reversing a trend towards incomprehensible legislation.
If we are expected to uphold the law, shouldn’t we be able to read and understand it?
Just a note: My favorite comment on the reading of the Constitution came from a Daily Kos blogger who found it “boring.” But also probably a bit too clear on the limits of what our government can do for our friends on the left…