Few Americans know as much about the tax code as members of the Ways and Means Committee. But their knowledge has its limits.
In the days before April 15, Roll Call contacted committee members’ offices to see whether they did their own taxes this year. Most did not respond to our inquiries, but the four who did — ranking member Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Reps. Phil English (R-Pa.), Richard Neal (D-Mass.) and Jerry Weller (R-Ill.) — all confirmed that they leave their 1040s to the professionals.
“Congressman Weller was advised when he was first elected to the state legislature to have his accountant do his taxes,” said spokesman Telly Lovelace. “So he’s had one do his taxes for 20 years.”
English also avoids the menacing IRS forms.
“No, I don’t do them,” English admits, saying that he has “a friend who’s a local accountant do my taxes because of the limitations on my time.”
English added he has “an excessive desire for accuracy. Because of my position, it would be particularly embarrassing if I made a mistake on my taxes. I would hate for a question mark.”
Indeed, not all Members have been so cautious with their income taxes, and they have paid a political price for it.
Then-Rep. Geraldine Ferraro (D-N.Y.) saw her vice presidential candidacy besieged in 1984 when it was revealed she owed more than $53,000 to the IRS in back taxes and interest because of a mistake she and her husband had made in computing capital gains taxes.
The always colorful former Rep. Jim Traficant (D-Ohio) is currently serving time in a federal prison for evading taxes, as well as racketeering and other corrupt practices. And his 2002 conviction was not his first tax-related problem. In 1987, he was forced to pay $180,000 in back taxes, interest and penalties.
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) also ran afoul of the IRS and the House Ethics Committee. In 1998 he was forced to pay more than $300,000 to defray the costs into its investigation of his activities, and the IRS looked into his dealings with a number of nonprofit groups. These troubles helped hobble Gingrich politically, and contributed to his eventual ouster as Speaker.
For current Ways and Means members, the lessons of the past seem to have sunk in.
“You’re wise to pay a little more than necessary in order to avoid trouble,” Neal said, adding that “my taxes are very simple. I don’t own anything other than my home, and after having four kids in college I don’t have any money.”
Members say that the experience of being a taxpayer has shaped their views of how to reform the tax system. Neal suggests that the argument should not revolve around “raises or cuts.” Instead, make it easier. “It has to do with simplification; if we can just make things easier, [taxes] will be better.”
English, for his part, is backing a personal consumption tax that would “reduce the complexity by a factor of 75 percent and would increase the national savings rate.”
Of course, being on the Ways and Means Committee is not a prerequisite for using tax complexity as a political issue.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) recently sent a letter to his colleagues railing against GOP changes to the IRS, stating that the party has “added tens of thousands of pages to the tax code.”