Taxpayers, meet your advocate

Nina Olson '75 heads a nation-wide staff of 2,200, travels 26 weeks a year, and testifies regularly before Congress-all in the name of taxpayer representation.

Meet your National Taxpayer Advocate, an appointment Olson has held since 2001. She reports to the Commissioner of Internal Revenue on behalf of the Taxpayer Advocate Service, an office dedicated to helping taxpayers solve their problems with the IRS. And she brings to the job 27 years of experience representing individual taxpayers of all levels of income.

As a tax attorney and the only IRS employee authorized to make legislative proposals directly to Congress, Olson identifies the top problems taxpayers face and analyses how the IRS can ameliorate those problems. She then delivers her recommendations to Congress twice a year.

"No one in the treasury department and no IRS employees, including the Commissioner of Revenue and anyone from the Office of Management and Budget, can see the report before I deliver it to Congress," Olson says. "I am truly an independent voice inside the IRS."

Recently Olson urged Congress to address the problematic issue of the alternative minimum tax, a separate tax system enacted in the 1960s to prevent the wealthy from using loopholes to avoid paying taxes. "More taxpayers who are middle class are being pulled into it," says Olson. "They pay their taxes under the regular tax system, but all of a sudden end up owing more taxes." An estimated 35-and-a-half million taxpayers by the year 2010 will fall into the alternative minimum tax, Olson says. "It is going to take some political will for Congress to address this."

Another goal is to make the IRS more user-friendly. "People don't know how to navigate the IRS,"she says. "It's hard to find the right person to talk to or to get someone on the phone who can answer questions and solve problems. We are trying to provide better phone service and training for IRS employees and to improve the web site." She hopes to establish a sophisticated e-mail system that will allow the public to formally send recommendations, suggestions and complaints to the Taxpayer Advocate Service. She also wants to simplify the tax system in general, cutting down on the great number of people who find filing taxes so complex and overwhelming that they use preparers.

Internationally, Olson consults developing nations who are establishing positions for taxpayer rights and fairness issues, drawing on her past experiences. While living in North Carolina after her BMC graduation, she ran an accounting and bookkeeping business while pursuing fine arts projects and raising a son. "One day in the 1980s Iwoke up and realized that the Internal Revenue Code was a law, and that I should be a lawyer to figure out what it meant," she says. There began four years of night school for a law degree from North Carolina Central University, and then another few years for a master's degree in law and taxation at Georgetown University Law Center.

After moving to Richmond VA, Olson started a low-income taxpayer clinic, the first in the country not associated with a law school. She testified before Congress in 1998 during the IRS hearings about the problems low-income taxpayers face. As a result of her testimony, Congress created a grant program for low-income taxpayer clinics to fund representation of low-income taxpayers and taxpayers who speak English as a second language. There are now 136 such clinics around the country; at the time of her testimony there were only 14.

Olson's position is one of three within the IRS governed by a statute and has served as a model for other positions in the Federal Government. In a study of the 100-plus ombudspeople in the federal government, her office was found to be the strongest in terms of authority, scope, and independence. "Most recently, when the Homeland Security Bill broke up Immigration and Naturalization Services into smaller offices, an omdudsperson for immigration and citizenship was created and modeled after the IRS," Olson says. "There's been more recognition of what an interesting and unique position I have."

Anyone holding the position of National Taxpayer Advocate cannot have worked for the IRS for two years before she takes the position and for five years afterwards. "The idea is that you really will be somebody from outside the IRS," Olson says. "You won't be worried about your career path in the IRS. I'm not afraid of saying things. It's very clear what my job is: It's to speak out and to advocate. People in Congress have told me, 'You wouldn't do your job well if you weren't in conflict with the IRS at some point.' It's a position that has a lot of built-in tension. I'm part of the organization, and yet I'm continually pointing out to the organization its needs for improvement."

For more information and a list of the 74 Local Taxpayer Advocates by state see www.irs.gov/advocate.

Return to profiles page

MHK