Hidden in Plain Sight: IRS Publications and a New Path to Tax Reform

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Andrea Monroe


Internal Revenue Service (IRS) publications are everywhere in tax practice and almost nowhere in tax scholarship. These publications seek to explain substantive tax law to the general public in a simple, comprehensible, and accurate manner. IRS publications are not only the primary source of information about tax law for taxpayers who file their own returns, but such publications are also essential for online tax preparation platforms, like TurboTax, and for third-party tax return preparers, who rely on this information when selling their services to millions of taxpayers each year. From the perspective of these stakeholders, IRS publications are not simply explanations of substantive tax law; they are substantive tax law. Yet IRS publications are scarcely mentioned in legal scholarship or tax policy debates. Considering their influence and ubiquity in tax practice, the broad inattention of scholars and policymakers to IRS publications is enormously surprising.

This Article suggests that IRS publications can do more than help non-expert stakeholders navigate their annual tax filing obligations; these publications can also offer significant and unexpected value for experts in their world of legal scholarship and tax policy debates. Studying IRS publications can yield important lessons about one of the greatest challenges facing the federal income tax system—complexity. Virtually all stakeholders agree that tax law is too complicated, but we seldom make meaningful progress toward simplifying the law. This Article proposes that the study of IRS publications can help experts identify and prioritize complexity problems in federal tax law. By using IRS publications to recognize high-risk/high-value problems with complexity, experts can formulate a tax research and reform agenda that will bypass many theoretical and epistemological roadblocks to tax simplification. The key is that IRS publications offer experts a new starting point in the long road toward tax reform, one that has been hidden in plain sight for decades.

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