Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Tax Code: Ask the Experts?

I start today's post with a curious observation: if you go to the IRS website looking for online copies of the U.S. Tax Code, what you find, on their page entitled "Tax Code, Regulations and Official Guidance" is a link to Cornell's Legal Information Institute, which hosts a copy of the U.S. Code.  Below the link is a warning:
CAUTION.  The version of the IRC underlying the retrieval functions presented above is generated from the official version of the U.S. Code made available to the public by Congress.  However, this version is only current through the 1st Session of the 112th Congress convened in 2011.  Before relying on an IRC section retrieved from this or any other publicly accessible version of the U.S. Code, please check the U.S. Code Classification Tables  published by the U.S. House of Representatives to verify that there have been no amendments since that session of Congress.
And after clicking the link the IRS directs you to another warning about links to private sites that reads:
By linking to this private business, the IRS is not endorsing its products, services, or privacy or security policies. We recommend you review the business's information collection policy or terms and conditions to fully understand what information is collected by this private business.
This strikes me as odd.  Hosting and publishing the text of the law is one function that I think both liberals and conservatives would agree should be carried out by the government itself. Here is the IRS saying that you cannot rely on them, or any other U.S. government entity, to provide you an electronic copy of the tax law. And that they don't endorse the information that is provided on the LII site either. Caveat lector, and good luck filing your returns.

Cornell does do a terrific job of compiling, parsing and presenting Federal legal information for free to the public (donate to their efforts, if you can!). And it appears that the information on their site is more up-to-date than the IRS warning would suggest. Nonetheless, their information is not fully up-to-date, and more to the point-- they are not responsible to taxpayers for providing this information. I think that Cornell and other similar efforts are best seen as filling in the gaps where government has not risen to the occasion.

But in this case, there is an excellent, updated electronic version of the U.S. Code, published by the office that compiles the Code: the Law Revision Counsel (LRC). As Cornell rightly notes (under an "update" tab here):
If you suspect that our system may be missing something, please double-check with theOffice of the Law Revision Counsel.
Yes, I'm biased-- our company, Xcential, helped the LRC convert the Code into well-structured XML, which the House announced last July. But that fact works both ways-- our team took on this project and decided to work with the House on this project, because of a fundamental belief: the official, accurate, electronic sources for our country's laws should be provided by the government.

Simple idea, no? Let's hope someone at the IRS is listening.

[Next up: IRS's internal reliance on Lexis-Nexis for tax law, opinions and analysis.]