Imagine filing your income taxes in five minutes—and for free. You'd open up a prefilled return, see what the government thinks you owe, make any needed changes and be done. The miserable annual IRS shuffle, gone.
It's already a reality in Denmark, Sweden, and Spain
. The government-prepared return would estimate your taxes using information your employer and bank already send it. Advocates say tens of millions of taxpayers could use such a system each year, saving them a collective $2 billion and 225 million hours in prep costs and time, according to one estimate.
The idea, known as "return-free filing," would be a voluntary alternative to hiring a tax preparer or using commercial tax software. The concept has been around for decades and has been endorsed by both President Ronald Reagan
and a campaigning President Obama
So why hasn't it become a reality?
Well, for one thing, it doesn't help that it's been opposed for years by the company behind the most popular consumer tax software—Intuit, maker of TurboTax. Conservative tax activist Grover Norquist and an influential computer industry group also have fought return-free filing.
Intuit has spent
about $11.5 million on federal lobbying in the past five years—more than Apple or Amazon. Although the lobbying spans a range of issues, Intuit's disclosures
pointedly note that the company "opposes IRS government tax preparation."
The disclosures show that Intuit as recently as 2011 lobbied on two bills
, both of which died, that would have allowed many taxpayers to file pre-filled returns for free. The company also lobbied on bills in 2007
that would have barred the Treasury Department, which includes the IRS, from initiating return-free filing.
Proponents of return-free filing say Intuit and other critics are exaggerating the risks of government involvement. No one would be forced to accept the IRS accounting of their taxes, they say, so there's little to fear.
"It's voluntary," Austan Goolsbee, who served as the chief economist for the President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board, told ProPublica. "If you don't trust the government, you don't have to do it."
Goolsbee has written
in favor of the idea and published the estimate of $2 billion in saved preparation costs in a 2006 paper that also said return-free "could significantly reduce the time lag in resolving disputes and accelerate the time to receive a refund."
Some conservative activists have sided with Intuit.
In 2005, Norquist
testified before the President's Advisory Panel on Federal Tax Reform arguing against return-free filing. The next year, Norquist and others wrote in a letter
to President Bush that getting an official-looking "bill" from the IRS could be "extremely intimidating, particularly for seniors, low-income and non-English speaking citizens."
Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform
, declined to comment, but a spokesman pointed to a letter
he and other conservatives sent this month to members of Congress. The letter says the IRS wants to "socialize all tax preparation in America" to get higher tax revenues.