Having mastered all of its other responsibilities, the IRS was getting restless. Seeking a new challenge, they are now going to run a testing and continuing education bureaucracy for unenrolled preparers.
When a bureaucracy takes on a new role, the smart question to ask is: who wins?
The big franchised tax preparers are the biggest winners – H&R Block, Jackson Hewitt and Liberty Tax will now get to put little neon signs saying “IRS Licensed” in their windows. Yes, they will have to take on some responsibility in administering continuing education and employee testing, but they will be able to spread that cost across a nationwide business. They will find ways to streamline things so their employees will miraculously achieve government-approved competence with amazingly little effort. And they will be able to afford fixers and lobbyists to unravel any glitches that happen in the IRS preparer bureau.
This process isn’t just hypothetical. It is just another variation of what happened in the accounting industry after Sarbanes-Oxley and PCAOB. Smaller firms who would take on small public companies before PCAOB could no longer justify the regulatory costs, and the public companies are now captive clients of the big firms.
Over time, the IRS regulatory function will undergo the inevitable process of regulatory capture by the big players. The result – regulations that don’t much bother them but which make life difficult or impossible for their little competitors.
Fixers and lobbyists – See above.
Congresscritters and their staffs – Especially those on tax writing committees. Their new friends Henry, Robert, Jackson and Hewitt will enrich their PACs and make sure that the needs of their new overlords are attended to.
IRS staffers – Once public service palls, the bureaucrats who oversee the programs will have cushy new homes awaiting them at the franchised tax shops.
When there are winners, there are losers. These include:
Small tax prep shops – A solo practitioner will have to manage the new bureaucracy alone, while his giant competitors will have full-time fixers. When a little guy’s competency exam gets lost by the IRS bureaucracy, he might lose a season’s worth of business; fixers and lobbyists will make sure nothing like that happens to the big boys. And of course the inevitable capture of the IRS bureaucracy by the big players will continue to squeeze the little guys.
Enrolled Agents – Now that the IRS will be creating a new lesser level of licensing, these professionals will have a harder time distinguishing their much higher standards to a confused public.
Consumers – The most obvious result will be an increase in prices, both to pay for the new compliance costs and because the rules will run smaller preparers out of the market. Supporters of the regulations will say that it will be worth it because the new standards will improve quality. That’s a pipe dream. A bozo test and a few hours of CPE won’t turn a quack into a brain surgeon.
Low income consumers will, of course, not have to pay for the fancy “licensed” preparers. There will still be plenty of folks with pirated copies of Turbotax preparing unsigned returns in their cars and apartments, and the higher prices of the licensed competitors will send them more business. Other consumers will either struggle through their own returns without benefit of CPE or drop out of the tax system entirely.
So what would be a better approach? – The real problem is Congress. A simple tax law without fraud-inviting refundable credits wouldn’t have preparer problems. At the very least, we should require Congresscritters to face the consequences of their own work. Every one of them should be required to prepare their returns themselves in a live (and archived) webcast. If they use software, their screens should be visible on the webcast. What about their privacy? They make us give them all of our personal information, so fair is fair.
Editor’s note: Joe Kristan is a tax shareholder for Roth & Company, a Des Moines, Iowa CPA firm, where he works with closely-held businesses and their owners. Prior to helping start Roth & Company, he worked for two of what are now the Final Four CPA firms. He writes the Tax Update Blog and is available for seminars, first communions, Bar Mitzvahs, etc. You can see his debut post for GC here.