Thursday, March 27, 2014

The real scandal at the IRS -- March 27, 2014 column


If you’re struggling with your taxes, this won’t come as a surprise:  The IRS is a mess.

I’m not referring to the scandal involving the Internal Revenue Service’s handling of applications from groups seeking tax-exempt status. Congressional Republicans won’t let it go, but the scandal is just one of the agency’s problems.

Our tax system is built on trust, and we all have a stake in a fair, helpful, functioning IRS. Nobody loves paying taxes, but about 98 percent of the money the IRS collects comes in on time and voluntarily. Only 2 percent is from “enforcement actions.”

For the system to keep working, though, taxpayers must be able to rely on the IRS to be impartial and to answer questions and provide sound advice.  Impartiality came into question with reports last year that the IRS subjected tea party and other conservative groups to extra scrutiny. The agency has a new commissioner and new rules and is working to repair its image.

For all the attention the scandal has gotten on Capitol Hill – 15 hearings and counting – you’d think every American wants to start a 501(c)(4) organization. Most Americans just want to file their taxes correctly.

Once upon a time, people could walk into an IRS office, sit down and get help filling out their returns. 

Today, most people have to pay a professional or buy software. Americans spent 6.1 billion hours and $168 billion on tax preparation in 2012.

As if that weren’t enough, taxpayers must guard against getting fleeced by unscrupulous and incompetent preparers, identity thieves posing on the phone and in emails as the IRS, and other scams.

Every year more than 100 million taxpayers call the IRS for help and millions more write or visit IRS walk-in-sites. This year, though, IRS projects it will be able to answer only six in 10 of the calls it receives. A decade ago, it answered nearly nine in 10, according to the latest annual report to Congress by National Taxpayer Advocate Nina E. Olson.

Olson is an independent voice for taxpayers in the IRS.  Her 2013 report, released in January, warns that IRS taxpayer service has dropped to unacceptable levels and could hurt voluntary compliance.  

For example, taxpayers lucky enough to get through by phone stay on hold for almost 20 minutes before they speak to a human.  

IRS now answers only “basic” tax law questions and won’t answer any questions after the April 15th deadline, even from taxpayers who get filing extensions and complete their returns later in the year.

“It is a sad state of affairs when the government writes tax laws as complex as ours – and then is unable to answer any questions beyond ‘basic’ ones from baffled citizens who are doing their best to comply,” Olson wrote. 

How did we get into this fix? Ask Congress .

Congress has cut the IRS budget and staff 8 percent since fiscal year 2010 as the IRS workload has increased. The workload will get heavier as the IRS takes responsibility for the Affordable Care Act’s tax penalty for people who don’t buy health insurance. 

Training at the IRS has taken a hit from $172 million to $22 million since 2010, the report says. Is it a surprise, then, that customer service reps give incorrect or no answers?

Congress has also placed many demands on the IRS during its investigations of the tax-exempt organizations scandal. Over the last 15 months, 250 IRS staffers have spent 100,000 hours to responding to congressional requests and have produced more than a million pages of redacted documents, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said Wednesday at a hearing.

All this comes at a cost-- $8 million to comply with congressional requests and another $6 million to $8 million to upgrade information technology to be responsive, he said. The meter is still running.

Taxpayers need to know that the IRS isn’t targeting people for their political, religious or other views.  They also need to know that they can get timely, credible information from the IRS. Everybody talks about reforming the tax code. Let’s start with making tax time a little easier for the hard-working taxpayer. 

 © 2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Living with Clinton, Bush fatigue -- March 20, 2014 column


The Ready for Hillary super PAC has raised $4 million to encourage Hillary Clinton to get in the 2016 presidential race.

Priorities USA Action, a super PAC that helped elect Barack Obama, has also thrown its considerable muscle behind Clinton’s expected candidacy. It plans to raise and spend far more than the $67 million it dropped on attack ads against Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 campaign.

Clinton probably won’t announce her plans until the end of the year, but you don’t have to wait to buy Hillary gear -- a Ready for Hillary mug goes for $20.16 – or to glimpse what’s likely ahead. We already know.    

“Is Hillary Clinton too old to run?” the headline teased on a column by Charlie Cook in National Journal last month. Cook is the publisher of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report and a respected campaign and elections analyst. He wrote:   

“Clinton turns 67 this October. At that age, she will likely be making her candidacy decision, and if nominated Clinton would turn 69 two weeks before the 2016 general election, notably the same age Ronald Reagan was when he was first elected in 1980. The choice to run for president is effectively a nine-year commitment: one year to run, another four years if she wins a first term – finishing up that term at age 73 – and then, assuming she runs for re-election and wins, serving four more years to end a second term at 77 years of age.”

Cook stirred a hornet’s nest. More than 4,200 comments flooded, and the vast majority were anti-Clinton, “among the most vitriolic that I have encountered in 28 years of column writing,” Cook wrote.

The Clintons are our Rorshach political couple. Americans adore and abhor them, see them as devils and divinity. Hillary Clinton’s fans saw the age question as sexist. Who asks if Vice President Joe Biden is too old to run? He’s five years older than Clinton. 

Many voters in 2016 will be too young to remember – and some weren’t yet born – when the Clintons occupied the White House. Others won’t remember much about Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign. People who were just 10 years old when she ran last time will be voting in 2016. Having a fresh message and appeal is a challenge for boomer candidates. 

Some of Clinton’s friends reportedly are hoping she won’t run; they worry that the commitment is too much for someone in her late 60s.

Just reading about her possible nine-year commitment makes me tired – not for her but the rest of us.
Democratic and Republican partisans will man (and woman) the barricades again, of course, but my guess is that many of us have a nagging case of Clinton fatigue – and Bush fatigue. Does anybody really want nine more years of daily, hand-to-hand, political warfare such as we’ve endured since 1993?   
I’m with former first lady Barbara Bush. When she said last year that “we’ve had enough Bushes” in the White House, I cheered. She enlarged on that theme in January.

“If we can’t find more than two or three families to run for high office, that’s silly,” she said on C-SPAN. “And I think that the Kennedys, Clintons, Bushes – there are just more families than that.”

Even if Hillary Clinton does not run, another Clinton may yet appear on a national ballot, just as the Bushes have potential candidates of their own.

A couple of weeks ago, Barbara Bush told an interviewer on Fox & Friends that “maybe it’s OK” for two or three families to dominate American politics, as has happened before. Say it isn’t so.

Her son Jeb, 61, the former governor of Florida and the son and brother of presidents, is showing up more often at political events, raising his profile and buzz.

And if Jeb says no, the Bush dynasty doesn’t end there. George P. Bush, Jeb’s son and George W.’s nephew, just won the Republican primary for Texas Land Commissioner and is expected to win again in November. George P. Bush speaks Spanish fluently and should connect with Latinos, something few Republicans can claim. His mother was born in Mexico. He’s 37.

And speaking of dynasties, Chelsea Clinton must have inherited political genes. What’s in her future? She’s 34.

Like it or not, we just may have to live with Clinton and Bush fatigue.

© 2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, March 13, 2014

Beware the hype about special election in Florida -- March 13, 2014 column


If you’ve ever looked at a leaf through a microscope, you know that tiny details appear enormous.

A special election is a rare moment in politics when the nation focuses its telescope on a single contest and then greatly magnifies the results.

Back in 1991, in a special Senate election, newly appointed Democratic Sen. Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania handily defeated Republican challenger Dick Thornburgh, and pundits read the tea leaves to say that health care had instantly jumped to the top of the national agenda.

Wofford did champion health care reform, as did Bill Clinton, elected president the next year. But we know how the Clinton health plan turned out.

In 1994, Wofford lost his Senate seat to a 36-year-old upstart named Rick Santorum. Health reform foundered for another decade.

When Democrat Kathy Hochul won a special House election in New York in an upset in 2011, analysts saw it as a sign Democrats would make fighting a Republican plan to cut Medicare their No.1 issue. By 2012, Hochul’s district had been redrawn, and Medicare was old news. She lost her seat. 

So perhaps it’s no surprise that when Republican David Jolly won Tuesday’s closely watched special House election in Florida, pundits saw it as a big deal. One political editor in the Sunshine State lifted his eyes from the microscope and said it was a “big, big, big, big win” for Republicans.

It was a win, certainly, but a narrow one.

The late C.W. Bill Young, a Republican, had held the seat more than 40 years. Jolly, who was Young’s former aide and general counsel, won by 3,400 votes out of 183,000 cast. It’s believed to be the costliest special election in history with about $12 million spent, most -- $9 million -- by outside groups.

Florida’s 13th Congressional District in Pinellas County on the Gulf Coast was subject to a blizzard of negative ads. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, ran a TV spot blasting Democrat Alex Sink for her support of Obamacare, claiming that 300,000 Floridians will lose their current coverage and that the law will hurt seniors, families and others.

“With Alex Sink, the priority is Obamacare -- not us,” the narrator intones.

Republicans say the special election foreshadows GOP gains in congressional races this fall. Sink was “ultimately brought down because of her unwavering support for Obamacare and that should be a loud warning for other Democrats running coast to coast,” said Rep. Greg Walden, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Had Democrats won, they too would have played up the significance, claiming it portends victories in November and a strengthened Democratic hand in the Senate. Instead, they said it was unsurprising that the seat stayed Republican. Still, they couldn’t deny that the loss is disappointing and could affect morale.

But what neither party says is how few seats are actually in play in November. Most districts have been drawn to favor incumbents and avoid tight races, so even though all 435 House seats are up in the midterm election, about 370 are considered safely Republican or Democratic. The House is expected to remain in Republican control for Obama’s final two years.

In the Senate, Republicans need six seats to wrest control from Democrats. That’s where Republicans hope their relentless attacks on the president and his health care law pay off.  

For his part, with six months until the election, Obama is already warning Democrats about the consequences of complacency and staying home.  

“In the midterms, Democrats too often don’t vote,” the president said March 6 at a Democratic National Committee event in Boston. “Too often, when there’s not a presidential election we don’t think it’s sexy; we don’t think it’s interesting. People tune out. And…we get walloped. It’s happened before and it could happen again.”

It could. So much depends on what happens in the next six months that it’s wise, when you hear anyone  talking about the significance of the Republican victory in Florida, to remember the leaf under the microscope. 

©2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Move over, Mary Jane, there's a new bad girl in town -- March 6, 2014 column


For Ronald Reagan’s first presidential inauguration in 1981, a candy company sent three-and-a-half tons of red, white and blue jelly beans to the White House.  

The candy was such a hit that Reagan jovially offered jelly beans to guests in the Oval Office and on Air Force One for the next eight years. First lady Nancy Reagan traveled the country warning young people to “just say no” to marijuana and other illegal substances.  

In those days, pot was the public enemy and sugar was just sweet. How quaint.

Today, the “evil weed” is seen increasingly as unthreatening, if not benign. Sugar is eyed as a gateway drug, blamed for everything from cavities and obesity to diabetes and heart disease.  

That sugar and marijuana have traded places in the public eye says a lot about how our culture and attitudes have changed. Nearly four in 10 Americans have tried marijuana, and more than half approve of legalizing it, polls show.  In 1969, the Woodstock year, only 12 percent approved, according to Gallup.

Twenty states allow medicinal use of marijuana, and voters in Colorado and Washington approved ballot measures in 2012 that legalize the use, cultivation and sales of marijuana to people 21 and over.

Other states don’t want to be left out of the blossoming pot economy. Oregon and Alaska are expected to put full legalization to the ballot test this November. Just the other day, the city council of the District of Columbia voted to decriminalize small amounts of pot.

Proponents see pot not only as an adult, personal choice, like alcohol, but also as an economic engine and boundless source of state tax revenue.  A TV ad that aired during the 2012 legalization campaign in Colorado showed a middle-aged mom who said she didn’t like pot but taxing it would mean money for schools and health care.  

In Denver, an enterprising Girl Scout troop set up its annual cookie sales table right outside a pot shop. And that leads us to sugar.    

If people are smiling on pot – at least for now – many have soured on sugar.

The World Health Organization says that our sugar intake should be no more than 5 percent of our total calories or about 6 teaspoons of sugar for women, 9 teaspoons for men.  A soft drink has up to 40 grams – about 10 teaspoons -- of sugar.

In England, chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies said last week that she believes “research will find sugar is addictive” and that “we may need to introduce a sugar tax.”

Several medical studies say sugar triggers the brain’s pleasure centers much the same way cocaine or heroin does. A study last year found Oreo cookies are as addictive as cocaine. Nobody wants to criminalize sugar, but many think more stringent labels and a tax on sugary soft drinks are good ideas.

First lady Michelle Obama last month unveiled proposed nutrition labels that will warn consumers how much added sugar is in their food. San Francisco and Berkeley, Calif., as well as Illinois are considering a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

When former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to ban large sugary drinks, the courts slapped him down. Still, the publicity may have dampened New Yorkers’ thirst. Soda sales in New York declined nearly 7 percent over the 12 months ending last November.

The sugar and beverage industry groups insist that soft drinks are a small part of what Americans eat and drink. They say more research is needed and it’s unfair to blame sugar for America’s weight problem.   

Still, the potential tax revenue from sugar-sweetened  drinks is, well, intoxicating. The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University has a dandy calculator that shows how much each state could reap from a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks. In Virginia, it’s $376.5 million a year. 

If we can legalize and tax marijuana, we should debate taxing sugary drinks. Oh, and pass the jelly beans. 

(C) 2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.