A Taxing Issue: Many Members Seek Help on Their Returns

Posted April 15, 2003 at 9:10am

Some people consider completing a marathon a personal challenge. For others, satisfaction comes after finishing The New York Times Sunday crossword. For former Ways and Means Chairman Bill Archer (R-Texas), his annual challenge is finishing his taxes.

Before retiring from Capitol Hill after the 2000 elections, Archer was legendary for being one of the only Members who did his or her own taxes. And Archer, now senior policy adviser in the D.C. office of PricewaterhouseCoopers, this year did his own taxes once again.

“I give a good ‘Yippee’ when I’m through,” Archer said last week.

But such fiscal filing doggedness was rare when he was on the Hill, and the case remains the same as Tuesday’s midnight tax filing deadline looms in the minds of the nation’s procrastinators. Most Members turn to accountants or tax specialists to sort through their deductions, receipts, bank statements and various tax forms.

An informal survey of members of the Ways and Means panel and the Senate Finance Committee shows that elected officials are not immune from the frustrations of filing taxes. Like many Americans, they seek outside help.

Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has a professional back home do his taxes. On the House side, Ways and Means ranking member Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) has his done professionally. But the committee’s chairman, Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), like Archer, has a history of fiscal filing perseverance, traditionally avoiding outside assistance.

Not surprisingly, Rep. Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.), Congress’ second-richest Member, does not pine away for hours with his 1040s. If he did, the endeavor would probably take days, if not weeks. (In a 2002 Roll Call survey, Houghton’s estimated wealth totaled $475 million.)

A Houghton spokesman said the Congressman has a number of people working on his taxes. “It is a group effort,” the staffer said.

Senate Budget Chairman Don Nickles (R-Okla.), who also sits on the Finance panel, does his own taxes. But he has an accountant review his filings. “So he does know the pain of filing taxes,” said a spokesman.

Perhaps because he knows the frustration of filing his own taxes, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) last week reintroduced a bill to move tax-filing day from April 15 to the first Monday in November. The bill has 19 Republican co-sponsors and is supported by a number of tax-reform and watchdog groups.

“I think more people would vote and would vote differently if they filed their taxes before Election Day,” Bartlett said, who — like Archer and Thomas — files his taxes on his own.

Though Archer is quite diligent with his filings, he did file an extension this year — just in case he spots something unexpected that should be factored into his filings.

Overall, Archer’s secret is not waiting until the last minute. “I do it in bits and pieces over a period of time,” he said.

That method reduces the agony and frustration, but what about online programs that purport making filing taxes a breeze? According to Thomas’ office, 31 million taxpayers e-filed their returns through Internal Revenue Service-authorized “electronic return originators.”

Archer isn’t convinced of the benefits of the Web. He uses a pencil.

“One year I tried to use the computer. I found that when I made a mistake, I didn’t know how to get it out,” he said.

“If there are any changes I have a nice eraser,” he said of the old-fashioned method.

But even though the tax pro finds pencil and paper easier than the computer, it doesn’t mean his method is foolproof. Even the House’s former top tax man has difficulty with his filings.

“It seemed a little tougher this year,” he mused.