The only tax reform we will ever need

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April 15.

It’s the most remembered and widely feared annual deadline on the calendar. Only such holiday dates as January 1, July 4, and December 25 surpass the date in our collective consciousness. Of course, those other dates are days of celebration; April 15 marks an annual rite of dread.

This year, as is often the case, the April 15 tax filing deadline was pushed back because of the Patriots’ Day holiday. Because Patriots’ Day was observed in the Bay State on April 18, 2016 this year, tax filers got a reprieve to April 19 this year.

But why April 15 to begin with?

One can certainly make the argument that an annual income tax filling deadline had to be set for some date, and that April 15 was as good as any date as any. Perhaps the date was established and routinely rubber-stamped with absolutely no political motive in mind. Nevertheless, April 15 ensures an extraordinarily convenient juncture for politicians of both parties.

The mid-April tax filing day falls almost dead center before and after election days. It arrives five and one-half months after the prior year’s November elections, or it proceeds the next election by a full six and one-half months.

Citizens begin to focus on their taxes sometime after New Year’s day, when their W-2s, 1099s, and other annual income statements begin to arrive in the mail. Today, the Obamacare Forms 1095-A, 1095-B, and 1095-C proving that taxpayers accede to the draconian individual mandate also make up part of everyone’s income tax package. As the April 15 deadline looms, taxpaying families are forced to dedicate their time to filing income taxes and opening their checkbooks to cover any taxes owed. It’s a wonder that we so readily accept the extra burden of forced labor that filing income tax forms obliges. If the federal bureaucracy bore the responsibility of such tedious work, tax simplification would come to immediate fruition.

In the world of politics, tax simplification tends to get sidetracked because so many interests are tied to the current system. Additionally, Republicans have surrendered to the big-government demand that simplification be “revenue neutral,” as if the current total tax burden represents some kind of idealized number. Instead, congressional conservatives should insist on allowing filers to choose between a simplified plan and the current byzantine tax code, should that work out better for them financially. This kind of “revenue neutrality” puts taxpayers first, guaranteeing that working families will be protected by tax reform.

If they ever do become serious again about tax relief, Republicans should begin at a seemingly innocuous point. They should pass a bill that changes the tax filing day from April 15 to the Tuesday following the first Monday in November. Why choose that date?

Federal elections are set in law for the Tuesday right after the first Monday in the month of November in “even” calendar years. Congress set the date in law in the year 1845 for Presidential elections. By the 1870s, Congress established the same date for biennial elections to the House of Representatives. Following the direct election of US Senators provided by the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, Congress added the same calendar formula for elections to the Senate providing uniformity in federal elections.

If Congress did the same with tax filing date, suddenly tax day would coincide with election day. Working families would face the same decision they make when choosing other essential purchases in their lives. Are we getting what we paid for? Do we need this much? Is it a good value? Do we favor higher taxes? Or lower taxes? Do we prefer a simpler tax code? Or a more complex one? Should we vote for the candidates who want to raise our taxes? Or for the candidates who want to lower them?

Questions like these would crop up in voters’ minds, as they proceeded to vote on Tax-Election Tuesday. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson: “Nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of filing taxes on election day.”

Assuredly liberal Democrats would oppose the notion from the start. They would implicitly understand that every election would be a referendum on taxes. That’s not an argument Democrats often win. Even voters who accept the current tax rates and collections tend to be repelled by the work of assembling their taxes, and by the responsibility of filing mistake-free forms, less the IRS levy heavy penalties over miscalculations and honest errors. Every two years, Democrats would have to argue against tax relief, against tax reform, against tax simplification, and against tax cuts.

That would put Republicans in a strong position leading up to Tax-Election Day in November.

But GOP congressional leaders have proven themselves a timid bunch. Likely enough, the idea is far too radical for them to embrace. After all, there is a dominant bookkeeping wing of the GOP whose contradictory goals remain balancing the budget in some misty distant future, at the same time they currently fund Obamacare, Planned Parenthood, the United Nations, National Public Radio, the Department of Education, and, of course, the Internal Revenue Service. These Republican Congressional leaders follow in the footsteps of Kansas Senator Bob Dole, whom Newt Gingrich mercilessly dubbed “the tax collector for the welfare state.”

As they acquiesce to President Obama’s insistence on breaking the budget caps that they themselves had set, both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan seemingly find themselves awkwardly auditioning for the Dole title.

Today’s tax code mushroomed out of the progressive reforms of the early 20th century. The Sixteenth Amendment empowered Congress to tax incomes “from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.” One of four constitutional amendments adopted between 1913 and 1920, the Sixteenth Amendment was ratified in February 1913, three months after Woodrow Wilson’s November 5, 1912 election to the presidency and weeks prior to his March 4th inauguration. Once in office, President Wilson pushed through the Revenue Act of 1913, securing the longtime Democrat Party goal of shifting Federal revenue sources from traditional Republican Party-favored tariffs to the newly adopted income tax. Initially, less than one percent of United States citizens paid federal income taxes. As income taxes ensnared more and more of the middle class, the filing date was moved over time from March 1 to March 15before ultimately being set for April 15 in 1955.

Clearly, Congress possesses authority to establish whatever tax day it chooses. The only check preventing tax day and election day from being one-and-the-same is Congress, itself. In order to ease the transition for taxpaying families, Congress could allow taxpayers to file either on April 15 or on Tax-Election Day in November. Sure, Democrats might complain that this gave working families an additional six months of “tax amnesty.” To which those Republicans who don’t fancy themselves “tax collectors for the welfare state” might respond: “We’re here to protect families, not bureaucracies.”

Among myriad of tax reform ideas bandied about for decades, none makes more likely the realization of fairer, fewer, and simpler tax laws than bringing together tax day and election day. Soured by the distasteful experience to laboring on behalf of the federal bureaucracy, working citizens would be mindful of political change as they entered polling places. The practical effects would be dramatic. Tax-Election Day would unleash broad-based popular demands for real change to the onerous tax code, resulting in triumphs for candidates committed to genuine reform.

In one sense, the union of tax day and election day is the only tax reform we will ever need.

Joseph Tortelli is a freelancer writer. Read his past columns here.