Rick Stone of Papillion, Nebraska wanted to know: “Why does it appear like no politician understands how the tax code is generated?”
With so many candidates promising to reform, trim or eliminate the tax code, Stone was a bit confused.
"As I thought I understood it from civics class," Stone said , "the tax code was created every time somebody created a law that gave somebody a tax break."
That "somebody" creating laws being Congress. Stone recalls being taught in school that the job of the IRS was just to synthesize the laws into actionable policies.
He learned that lesson at Linden McKinley High School in Columbus, Ohio in a class taught by Sandra Ditschle. For about 33 years, she said she "taught social studies, government, history." Ditschle is now in her 70s, and still lives in Columbus. Over the years, she figures she taught about 1,500 students the basics about how tax policy is created and how to file tax returns.
“I would explain the tax rate, how it worked," she said. "And when we talked about taxes, we would talk about whether taxes were fair for everyone.”
When asked Rick’s question about the tax code, and whether presidents have the power to change it, Ditschle said, scoffing.
"Of course not. No one president can act and do that all by himself. But it’s politically the correct thing to do. You try to get the voter’s attention," she said.
Rick remembered his lessons well. It's Congress, not the IRS, that writes the law, which is the official tax code. But what's commonly referred to as the tax code includes interpretations of the law by the IRS and Treasury Department, said Eugene Steuerle, a tax policy expert at the Urban Institute.
"The law itself is small compared to these regulations and rulings."
Steuerle said when people talk about the tax code it's important to specify if they mean the law itself or the tens thousands of pages of explanations, regulations and legal decisions that go with it.
"Sometimes the law is a very simple statement," Steuerle said . "It might be two sentences defining some very complex area of the law. So, in that case, you’re going to have a huge number of words trying to define exactly what that means."
Ditschle said she knew how the process worked in detail, but figured it was too complicated for the high schoolers she taught in the 1970s. Most of them just wanted to learn how to get their refunds, as many of them worked while in school.
"Occasionally," she recalled, "when I was teaching I would have a student come back and say, 'Would you check my taxes for me?' So after school I would look over their tax forms."
Other students, like Rick Stone, just held onto what they learned for decades.