• Video

What is Tax Exceptionalism?

Professor Kristin Hickman explains the notion of “tax exceptionalism” and its justifications. Administrative agencies that collect taxes are often not subject to general rules or administrative laws that other agencies must abide by. The collection of revenue for the federal government is considered more necessary than the work of other agencies. Professor Hickman points out, however, that the IRS is also involved with a number of social welfare programs that have little or nothing to do with the primary purpose of the agency. https://youtube.com/watch?v=Ssf84uSmFZI


Notions of tax exceptionalism became particularly pervasive in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s with the general assumption of most tax specialists being that tax administration was exempt or largely exempt from general administrative law principles. Tax exceptionalism in general is the notion that tax administration shouldn't have to follow some or even perhaps many or all of the general administrative law requirements, doctrines and norms that other federal government agencies have to follow. One of the main arguments I think in favor of tax exceptionalism that is often offered is that tax is different because the government can't function without the revenue that the tax system collects. Tax is sort of a first among equals, if you will. General administrative law has as its guiding principle, the notion that we give federal government agencies a tremendous amount of policymaking discretion and delegated authority from Congress. And one of the things that needs to go along with that tremendous discretionary authority is transparency and accountability when agencies exercise the powers that they have been given. Tax really is no different in that sense, particularly to the extent that many, many, many citizens have to deal with the tax system. Over 150 million individual income tax returns were filed last year. Transparency and accountability in administration of the tax laws ought to be thought of as particularly critical. Moreover, even though many people think of the tax system and think of tax administrators as having the primary function, or even the sole function, of raising revenue for the federal government, the fact of the matter is that the Internal Revenue Service in contemporary times does a lot more than that. The Internal Revenue Service serves a variety of regulatory and social welfare functions. For example, the Internal Revenue Service is the largest antipoverty agency that we have in the federal government. The earned income tax credit and the child tax credit, which are administered by the Internal Revenue Service are both larger in terms of the amount of dollars that they involve than any other antipoverty programs that we have in this country. We have the Internal Revenue Service administering many different programs associated with healthcare and pensions. The Affordable Care Act, for example, is under the administration of the Internal Revenue Service, albeit often, though not always, in conjunction with the Department of Health and Human Services. .But when you have the Internal Revenue Service administering a wide array of regulatory and social welfare programs that have little or nothing to do with revenue raising, then justifying tax exceptionalism on grounds that the IRS serves a unique function of raising revenue starts to fall apart just a little bit.

Related Content