What is the Johnson Amendment?

By: David Herzig

As the world braces for the upcoming Executive Order from President Trump,

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I wanted to take a minute and describe the Johnson Amendment.  Later today, after the actual Executive Order is made public, Ben Leff will be writing up a more through post.

A couple of months ago President Donald Trump told the audience at the National Prayer Breakfast that he would “get rid of and totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment. Which raises the question: what is the Johnson Amendment. Because he brought it up at the National Prayer Breakfast, it also leads to the question of how does affects churches.

In 1954, without explanation, Lyndon Johnson proposed a small amendment to the tax law governing tax-exempt organizations: forbid them from endorsing or opposing candidates for office. One of the few consistent talking points during president-elect Donald Trump’s campaign was that this so-called “Johnson Amendment” should be repealed; since comprehensive tax reform is part of Trump’s plan for his first 100 days in office, the repeal may happen immediately. Continue reading “What is the Johnson Amendment?”

The Surly Subgroup Turns One!

Time flies when you’re having fun, I guess. Today is the one-year blogiversary of the Surly Subgroup. What started off as a group-blogging experiment hatched at last year’s Critical Tax Conference at Tulane Law School has provided quite a bit of entertainment for Surly bloggers and our guest bloggers, and hopefully for our readers as well.

It’s obviously been a big year on tax and other fronts. Since our inception, we’ve published 206 blog posts on a variety of topics. And we’ve drawn readers from 140 different countries.

Surly regulars and guest bloggers have covered various tax-related issues surrounding politics and the 2016 election—including disclosure of presidential tax returns, the Emoluments Clause, the Trump Foundation, and the Clinton Foundation. We’ve written about churches, 501(c)(3)s and the IRS treatment of non-profits. We’ve discussed the tax reform proposals of the 2016 presidential candidates and the #DBCFT. We’ve written several administrative law posts about Treasury Regulations and rulemaking.

Politics aside we’ve also covered other important issues in tax policy—including taxation and poverty, healthcare, tax policy and disabilities, tax compliance, and tax aspects of the Puerto Rico fiscal crisis. We’ve discussed several issues in international and cross-border taxes, touching on the EU state aid debate, the CCCTB, taxation and migration, the Panama Papers, tax leaks more generally, and tax evasion in China.

We hosted our first ever online Mini-Symposium on Tax Enforcement and Administration, which featured posts by ten different authors on a variety of tax administration topics. The Mini-Symposium was spearheaded by Leandra Lederman. Leandra had organized and moderated a discussion group on “The Future of Tax Administration and Enforcement” at the 2017 AALS Annual Meeting, and many of the discussion group participants contributed to the online symposium. We hope to organize future online symposia on other topics.

We’ve blogged about various conferences, workshops, and papers, both tax related and not-so-much tax related. We’ve also had lots of fun writing about taxes in popular culture – Surly bloggers and guest bloggers have written about the tax aspects of Pokémon Go, tax fiction, music-related tax issues (Jazz Fest! Prince! “Taxman”!), soccer players, dogs, Harry Potter fan fiction, Star Trek, and John Oliver. Surly bloggers even recorded a few tax podcasts!

In short, it’s been a busy year, and we’ve had a lot of fun with the Surly platform. We hope you have as well. Going forward, we’re going to keep the blog posts coming. We also hope to draw more regular and guest bloggers and to organize other online symposia.

Thanks for reading!

Neil Gorsuch and the Tax Law

On Friday, the Senate confirmed Neil Gorsuch as the newest Justice on the Supreme Court, and today he was officially sworn in, taking the seat that Justice Scalia’s passing left vacant.

When Justice Scalia passed away, I looked at the tax opinions he had authored. It turns out, Justice Scalia didn’t author a whole lot of tax opinions, and those that he did author were, as I said, “workmanlike,” without the verbal pyrotechnics, wit, and flair he was known for.

I was curious whether Justice Gorsuch would bring anything different to that seat, so I looked for tax opinions he had authored.[fn1] My search terms brought up 34 hits; the vast majority were not actually cases dealing with the federal income tax.[fn2] In fact, I only saw two cases dealing with federal income tax issues, and neither of them really dealt with the tax law. Continue reading “Neil Gorsuch and the Tax Law”

ACTC Letter Requesting a Variance for Tax Guidance

By: Leandra Lederman

Sam Brunson previously blogged about President Trump’s Executive Order of January 30, 2017, “Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Cost,” which requires an agency to identify two regulations to eliminate for every new regulation it issues. (Sam also has related posts here and here). As Sam stated, the Executive Order burdens taxpayers, who benefit from the public guidance Treasury regulations provide.

On March 23, the American College of Tax Counsel (ACTC) sent a letter to the Secretary of Treasury, Hon. Steven Mnuchin, and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Hon. Mick Mulvaney, “respectfully request[ing] that the Administration consider the unique role that the tax law plays in the lives of every American and provide the Treasury Department and the IRS with appropriate flexibility in issuing guidance that taxpayers and their advisors need in order to comply with the tax law.” The letter explains in part:

“By limiting the flexibility of Treasury and the IRS to issue such guidance, the Executive Order risks shifting the interpretive burden onto taxpayers, who must hire accountants, lawyers, and other advisors to guide them. . . . Moreover, by requiring Treasury and the IRS to identify two ‘deregulatory’ actions for each new guidance item, the Executive Order risks imposing additional burdens on taxpayers if it results in the elimination of existing rules that taxpayers and their advisors have come to rely on.”

I hope that Secretary Mnuchin and Director Mulvaney are receptive. As the ACTC’s letter states, even while simplification efforts are underway, “it is critical for taxpayers and their advisors to have the guidance needed to comply with the tax law as currently in effect.”

Deficient Notices of Deficiency and the Remedy Question

By: Leandra Lederman

In QinetiQ v. Commissioner, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit refused to invalidate a Notice of Deficiency that simply stated “that QinetiQ ‘ha[d] not established that [it was] entitled’ to a deduction ‘under the provisions of [26 U.S.C.] § 83.’” The taxpayer had argued that the Notice “failed to provide a reasoned explanation for the agency’s final decision, as required by the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), 5 U.S.C. §§ 701-06.” The court’s analysis of this issue focuses on the distinction between court review that is subject to the APA and court review that is not. The QinetiQ court found that review of IRS deficiency actions, which predates the APA, falls into the latter category.

The QinetiQ case can readily be grouped with Mayo Foundation and the post-Mayo cases focused on the intersection of administrative law with federal tax law. In a recent post on the Procedurally Taxing blog, Bryan Camp does a nice job of analyzing the case in that context. But another perspective on the case is that the APA argument in QinetiQ is the latest packaging of some taxpayers’ complaints about uninformative Notices of Deficiency. In fact, QinetiQ also argued that the Notice violated Code section 7522, which requires various IRS notices, including Notices of Deficiency, to “describe the basis for, and identify the amounts (if any) of, the tax due, interest, additional amounts, additions to the tax, and assessable penalties included in such notice.”

As I wrote over two decades ago, in one of my first articles, “‘Civil’izing Tax Procedure: Applying General Federal Learning to Statutory Notices of Deficiency,” 30 U.C. Davis L. Rev. 183 (1996), the conflicts and confusion over the validity of Notices of Deficiency stem from two issues. The first is that courts often focus on only one of the Notice’s functions in isolation, such as its jurisdictional role as the “ticket to Tax Court” in deficiency cases. My 1996 article argued that the Notice of Deficiency not only plays that role, it also provides notice to the taxpayer (like civil process) and acts as an inchoate complaint, helping to frame the issues if a Tax Court case ensues. As I explain there, less content should be required for jurisdictional purposes than to frame the content of the litigation. Code section 7522 arguably reflects this idea, as I’ll explain further below. Continue reading “Deficient Notices of Deficiency and the Remedy Question”

Budget Reconciliation Process and Obamacare

By: David Herzig

Friday the Wall Street Journal published Daniel Hemel and my article on why we think it will be very hard for the Senate to just do away with the ACA (aka Obamacare) via reconciliation.  We follow-up our earlier Surlygroup posting (also cross-posted at Yale J. Reg.) which discussed why the Senate norms are hard to break.  Since that article, we have developed some fairly interesting models on why we think the Senate norms are rather sticky – more on that to come.

In the Wall Street Journal article we state, “Most significantly, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his caucus may be forced to choose between their antipathy toward the ACA, also known as Obamacare, and their allegiance to longstanding institutional norms. In the end, the scope of ACA repeal will likely depend on whether Senate Republicans decide to score political victories in the short term or to maintain the Senate’s unique culture for the long haul.”

The problem for the republicans is the Byrd rule.  Repeal of the ACA will have budgetary impact beyond the budget window.  A decision will need to be made on the impact.  As we stated, “On some reconciliation-related questions, the presiding officer defers to the Budget Committee chairman, currently Senator Mike Enzi. On other questions, including whether a provision produces “merely incidental” effects on the budget, the presiding officer generally follows the advice of the Senate’s nonpartisan parliamentarian, the official adviser to the Senate on the body’s rules.”

Continue reading “Budget Reconciliation Process and Obamacare”

The Art of the (Budget) Deal

By Daniel Hemel and David Herzig

Who Holds the Trump Card on Reconciliation?

Republicans on Capitol Hill are reportedly planning to use the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process to repeal the Affordable Care Act and overhaul the tax code. Against that background, Sam Wice says that “the most powerful person in America” in 2017 will be Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, the nonpartisan official who will “determine” how much of their agenda Republicans can pass through reconciliation. This, of course, is an exaggeration: like it or not, the most powerful person in America in 2017 will be Donald J. Trump, who will wield all the power of the imperial presidency. But Wice’s post helpfully directs our attention to the budget reconciliation process, the rules of which quite likely will determine whether the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill can repeal the ACA and reform the tax laws.

Yet while one should not underestimate the importance of reconciliation, one should also not overestimate the power of the Parliamentarian in the reconciliation process. As a formal matter, the Parliamentarian’s role is advisory; and as a practical matter, the Parliamentarian has little say over significant aspects of reconciliation. Other actors—most notably, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wy.)—wield at least as much influence as the Parliamentarian. Most importantly, Enzi—not MacDonough—will determine whether the provisions in any reconciliation bill violate various rules against deficit-increasing legislation being passed via reconciliation. And unlike the Parliamentarian, the Budget Committee Chairman is very hard to fire.

Reconciliation measures can begin in either or both chambers. However, since the ultimate vote on the budget measure occurs in the Senate, we’ll focus on the Senate side of the reconciliation process for purposes of this discussion. On the House side, the Rules Committee Chair and the Budget Committee Chair will wield outsized influence as well. We expect Pete Sessions (R-Tex.) to stay on as House Rules Committee Chair; as for the House Budget Committee Chair, the race is on for a replacement to Tom Price, the Georgia Republican recently tapped as Trump’s Health and Human Services Secretary.

To understand why the Budget Committee Chair is as powerful as he is, a bit of background on reconciliation may be helpful. Continue reading “The Art of the (Budget) Deal”

Letter Urging the Senate to Vote on U.S. Tax Court Nominations

Over 50 tax law professors have signed a letter (available here) urging the U.S. Senate to vote on U.S. Tax Court nominees Elizabeth Ann Copeland and Vik Edwin Stoll. Unfortunately, these nominations may not get much attention in the wake of the election. However, the signatories (myself included) are urging the Senate to schedule a vote on these nominees, both of whom were favorably reported out of the Senate Finance Committee over a year ago. Danshera Cords has more on Procedurally Taxing.

Will the Supreme Court Hear a Retroactive Taxation Case This Term?

By: David J. Herzig

Earlier this year, the Washington Supreme Court held that the retroactive application of the legislature’s amendment to a Business & Occupation (B&O) tax exemption revising the definition of “direct seller’s representative” to conform to the Washington Department of Revenue’s interpretation of the exemption did not violate a taxpayer’s rights under due process, collateral estoppel, or separation of powers principle.

Like most states, Washington had a B&O tax for “the act or privilege of engaging in business activities.”  Under the original law, out-of-state sellers were exempt if they acted through a representative.  DOT Foods shows up in Washington and sells through a wholly owned subsidiary to avoid the B&O tax.

In 1999, the Washington Department of Revenue changed its interpretation of the statute to subject DOT and others to the B&O tax.  Dot challenged that change (215 P.3d 185 (Wash. 2009) “DOT I”)) and won.  DOT I applied for the tax periods 2000-2006.

DOT then sought a refund for the period Jan. 2005 – Aug. 2009 (not the time period of DOT I).  In the meantime, in 2010 the Washington State Legislature changed Wash. Rev. Code Sec. 82.04.423(2) in response to the DOT I ruling.  The statute both retroactively and prospectively changed the statute. Based on the statutory change, the Washington Department of Revenue rejected the refund claim.

For the period covered by DOT I, DOT and Washington agreed on a settlement for a 97% refund for B&O taxes paid.  For the May 2006 to December 2007 period (after DOT I), the refund request was denied.  DOT challenged the retroactive application under the theories of collateral estoppel, separation of powers, and due process.  DOT lost in the Washington Supreme Court and now has appealed to the US Supreme Court.

The test for whether or not retroactive tax legislation satisfies Due Process is United States v. Carlton, 512 U.S. 26 (1994).  Carlton  applied a rational basis test.  The Court stated retroactive tax legislation would not violate due process if, “legitimate legislative purpose furthered by rational means.”  According to the ACTC brief,   “The Washington Supreme Court ignored the unique circumstances of the Carlton case, which involved the correction of an obvious legislative error that was identified very soon after the statute was enacted and which the taxpayer was admittedly exploiting for its own benefit.”

Continue reading “Will the Supreme Court Hear a Retroactive Taxation Case This Term?”

I’ve Got ITINs on My Mind

By: Francine J. Lipman

Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) Holders Pay Over $45 Billion Annually in Federal, State, and Local Taxes

Among the many amazing opportunities I have had as a law professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas is continuing my work with immigrants on their tax issues. As I have written about at length unauthorized immigrants pay many tens of billions of dollars a year in taxes including federal (about 4.4 million ITIN tax returns were filed in 2015 paying over $23 billion including $18.1 in federal income taxes and $5.5 in self-employment taxes), state, and local income, property, sales, excise, etc. ($12 billion annually), and payroll taxes (about $12 billion a year in net Social Security and Medicare taxes for which they currently receive no current or future benefit).

ITINs GENERALLY

Nevertheless, Congress continues to challenge this population with respect to their tax compliance. If you do not know what an ITIN is then this issue likely does not directly affect you … however if you want a quick education the National Immigration Law Center (NILC) has a great primer available in English and Spanish here. Since 1996, IRS has issued about 21 million ITINs although only about 5 million are currently being used. Congress had previously enacted legislation causing any ITIN not used for five years to expire. However, that legislation was not given a chance to be enforced, because Congress has been busy enacting more recent ITIN expiration legislation that supersedes the five year law.

THE CURRENT ITIN on my mind ISSUE

ITIN EXPIRATIONS

In the recently enacted PATH Act of 2015 (Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes), among other matters, all ITINs issued before 2013 will be expiring and have to be renewed. An ITIN issued after December 31, 2012, will remain valid unless the person to whom it was issued does not file a tax return—or is not included as a dependent on the return of another taxpayer—for three consecutive years.

Congress has phased-in the expiration of ITINS as follows:

IF THE ITIN WAS ISSUED         THE ITIN EXPIRES ON

before January 1, 2008                    January 1, 2017
in 2008                                             January 1, 2018
in 2009 or 2010                                January 1, 2019
in 2011 or 2012                                January 1, 2020

In an effort to streamline the process, the IRS is identifying the first wave of ITINs expiring on January 1, 2017 as ITINs with the middle digits of 78 or 79. The IRS will identify the respective middle digits for the second, third, and fourth waves of expirations in time.

HOW TO RENEW BEGINNING October 1, 2016 

ITINs scheduled to expire as of January 1, 2017 (middle digits 78 or 79 or any ITIN not used on a tax return for the last three consecutive years (e.g., 2013, 2014, and 2015)), can be renewed using the newly revised for this purpose Form W7 (available here) also known as an Application for IRS Individual Taxpayer Identification Number. No tax return is required for a renewal application.

The application including all required original documents (e.g., passport) must be mailed to Internal Revenue Service, ITIN Operation, P.O. Box 149342, Austin, TX 78714-9342. The anticipated time that the IRS will take to renew or issue an ITIN outside of peak processing times (between January and April) has historically been about six weeks. However, in a recent press conference the IRS said that they would be sending 400,000 letters to ITIN holders with expiring ITNs so there could be a much longer waiting period. The National Taxpayer Advocate has written about the ITIN application backlog and bottleneck in her 2015 Report to Congress as Most Serious Problem Number 18.

Any original documents or certified copies submitted in support of an ITIN application are supposed to be returned within 65 days. Taxpayers who do not receive their original and certified documents within 65 days of mailing them to the IRS may call 1-800-908-9982 to check on their documents.

CERTIFIED ACCEPTANCE AGENTS   Not surprisingly, many immigrants will not want to send original documents to the IRS. In lieu of sending original documentation, taxpayers may be eligible to use an IRS authorized Certified Acceptance Agent (CAA) or make an appointment at a designated IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center location. CAAs often charge a fee for services rendered although some of the large chains of retail tax preparation companies are advertising free ITIN renewal services. I would advise taxpayers to proceed with caution as there may be ancillary costs, charges, or fees. The Consumer Federation of America, among others including myself, have written about the high cost of tax assistance services for low-income taxpayers and the potential for consumer abuse including price gouging.

FAMILY ITIN APPLICATIONS   The IRS will accept a Form W-7 renewal application from each member of a family if at least one of the family members listed on a tax return has an ITIN with the middle digits of 78 or 79. If one family member has middle digits 78 or 79, all family members who have an ITIN may submit a Form W-7 renewal application at the same time.

FINANCIAL CONSEQUENCES IF ITINs Are NOT Renewed

Until ITINs are renewed, returns with expired ITINs will be processed and treated as timely filed, but the returns will be processed without any exemptions and/or credits claimed and no refund will be paid. The taxpayer will receive a notice from the IRS explaining the delay in any refund and that ITINs must be renewed. Once ITINs are renewed, any exemptions and credits will be processed and any allowed refunds will be paid. If ITINs are not renewed, taxpayers may be subject to interest and penalties for any tax owed as a result of disallowed exemptions and credits.

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HELP IS AVAILABLE

The more than 130 Low-Income Taxpayer Clinics across the country should be able to answer questions and point you in the right direction to get assistance. To find the contact information for a LITC in your area look at this user-friendly map and list in English and Spanish here.

Moreover, the NILC and other immigrant advocate groups and pro bono lawyers like myself are always here to lend a hand. On November 16th, UNLV will be hosting a Continuing Legal Education program titled “Everything You Need to Know About the NEW Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) Renewal Process” from 12:30 – 2:30 p.m. at William S. Boyd School of Law, Moot Court Room. Join us.

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