The Cambridge Dictionary defines “digging your own grave” to mean doing “something that causes you harm, sometimes serious harm.” Kids who don’t do their homework, politicians who cut popular spending programs, and people who overshare on social media all dig their own grave in one way or another.
It’s not every day that someone charges us for the privilege of digging our own grave. But if DePaul Law School Professor Emily Cauble has her way, someday the IRS may ask us to do just that. She’s just published a paper in the Harvard Journal on Legislation, arguing it’s “Time for a Tax Return Filing Fee.” She starts by pointing out that audits are expensive, and some returns are more expensive to audit than others. So, to encourage taxpayers to cover the costs they impose on the tax system with “complex transactions,” Congress should impose a filing fee on the ones who are hardest to audit.
Specifically, Cauble would impose a fee on corporations with more than $10 million in assets who file Schedule UTP, the “Uncertain Tax Position Statement.” This is a special form you file if you’re actually setting aside reserves to cover the bill if the IRS shoots you down. That fee would go up with the number of uncertain positions you take, or the difficulty of auditing those positions.
At first glance, that’s not an outrageous idea. Government agencies routinely impose user fees to cover costs for specific services. Want to protect your genius invention? Pay the Patent & Trademark Office a fee ranging from $50 to $10,000. Want to license a new nuclear reactor? Pay the Nuclear Regulatory Commission a fee of up to 33% of the cost of issuing the license. Want the IRS to rule on your position before you file a return? Pay a fee of up to $30,000 for a “letter ruling” giving you the thumbs-up.
But those fees are all voluntary. You don’t have to patent an invention, power up a nuclear reactor, or request a letter ruling. Taxes are mandatory, and it just doesn’t seem sporting to make you pay extra to red-flag your own return!
Here’s another problem. Taxes are famous for starting small and growing out of control. (Sort of like how kittens grow up to be cats.) Back in 1913, rates started at 1% on incomes over $3,000 ($78,000 in today’s money), and rose to 7% on incomes over $500,000. That $3,000 threshold meant less than 1% of Americans actually paid any tax at all. Today, of course, nearly everyone with a job pays, and you’d probably laugh if you got away with paying just 7%.
Cauble writes that if her user fee grows, it “could be tied to the amount of certain deductions and credits (other than those disproportionately claimed by lower income individuals) that are not verifiable by third-party reporting.” That means no fees for reporting income the IRS can already verify with W2s and 1099s, or for claiming the standard deduction, or for claiming the earned income credit. But we can just picture a new Schedule UFC, “User Fee Calculation,” with separate line-items, sub-schedules, and fee amounts for each sole proprietorship, rental property, or K1 you report.
Professor Cauble says herself that “the prospects of Congress adopting such a fee in the current political environment are dim.” That’s professor-speak for, “this whole paper has been a delightful 46-page academic exercise with no real-world consequence.” But in the unlikely event the IRS does start charging you to dig your own grave, count on us to help you make that shovel less expensive