IRS Licensing of Tax Preparers Is Ripe for Abuse

Roughly a quarter of all jobs in America now require some sort of occupational license. Sixty years ago, it was about one job in 20. Should tax preparers join the list? The Taxpayer Protection and Preparer Proficiency Act of 2021 (H.R. 4184), introduced by Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D-CA), is the latest legislative attempt to do so. CEI signed onto a coalition letter this week, led by the Institute for Justice, opposing the idea.

The bill is being marketed as a consumer protection measure that would ensure that taxpayers are guaranteed quality service by a knowledgeable tax preparer. In practice, it would harm both consumers and small tax preparers. Like many occupational licensing requirements, licensing of tax preparers is economic protectionism. It would favor big accounting firms over small preparers, while raising consumer prices. The IRS’ ability to approve and deny licenses would give it an additional tool to threaten tax preparers and abuse taxpayers. And it would potentially open black markets for unaccountable “ghost preparers” who work outside the system.

First, the rent-seeking argument. H&R Block and other big firms can afford the time and expense it would take to get their employees licensed. But thousands of individual tax preparers who work part-time to help make ends meet, cannot. They would go out of business, and their customers would have no choice but to turn to the big firms. Actions speak louder than words.

Second, the power to grant licenses is also the power to take them away. If the IRS believes that a tax preparer advocates a little too hard for her clients and saves them too much money, it can put that preparer out of business. Under the bill, the IRS only needs to show in a hearing—which it convenes, for which it sets the procedures, and where the participating personnel are on its payroll—that a preparer is “incompetent” or “disreputable.” These terms are defined so vaguely under 31 U.S. Code § 330 that the IRS can use them almost any way it wishes. Penalties include fines to the preparer and her client, censure, and loss of license.

Third, licensing requirements would open up black markets for “ghost preparers.” Licensing is not free, and businesses pass their increased costs on to consumers. That means people can get cheaper tax preparation services by going to unlicensed “ghost preparers” who do not sign their name onto clients’ returns. While this might save some money, it also lets ghost preparers escape liability for mistakes. That is the opposite of consumer protection.

At the very least, Rep. Panetta should withdraw his bill. But the best long-term reform would be to treat the root of the problem: a 70,000-page tax code that is too complicated for most people to navigate without professional help. The Tax Foundation estimated in 2016 that federal tax compliance alone costs 8.9 billion hours of paperwork and $409 billion. This does not include state and local tax compliance. Those figures have likely gone up in the last five years. There are better uses for those resources, especially during a tough economic recovery.

A simpler tax code would address most of the IRS’ complaints about tax avoidance and save taxpayers time, money, and hassle—and do so in a revenue-neutral way. Big accounting firms, their lobbyists, and their political allies’ losses would be more than offset by the gains to nearly everyone else.

The coalition letter is here. Back in 2010, Caleb O. Brown and I wrote in Investor’s Business Daily about a similar proposal that ultimately failed.

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