A California tax consultant was recently indicted for allegedly impersonating a congressional staff aide. For all current and former congressional staffers (me included), this must generate a chuckle. Why impersonate someone in a job that includes endless days of listening to constituent inquiries, legitimate opinions and semi-coherent rants?
In this case, the impersonator cut and pasted (the old way) official stationery to fabricate a letter from a congressional aide to one of her clients, claiming an Internal Revenue Service investigation was underway. It was her way of showing her client “she had succeeded in alleviating his tax problems.” Not only does the letter make amusingly unrealistic statements, it gives a wrong impression of what congressional offices can and can’t do.
Fact is, congressional offices can help with individual tax problems if a caseworker knows how to effectively communicate with the constituent and with the IRS. It’s all about education, facilitation and simple mediation.
Educating constituents is key once their volcanic tempers subside. Listening to and evaluating their story takes patience and skill. Is the problem based in tax law, tax preparation or IRS procedure? Staffers are not CPAs and shouldn’t give tax return advice. They should acknowledge if current tax law is what causes the heartburn and either defend the law or explain current efforts, if any, to change it.
Responsive staffers know IRS policy and procedures in tax determination, collection, audit and exemption. They can detect administrative or paperwork errors and explain to the constituent what corrective inquiries can be made and how long it will take.
Facilitation and mediation involve constantly working with IRS officers trained in problem resolution. The good caseworker starts by showing respect. IRS employees are people – professional at what they do but in an agency that is never well liked. A good working relationship helps quickly prioritize and determine the merits of the constituent problem. A path towards resolution (or not) becomes clear in a short period of time.
Can congressional offices pass a magic wand and make all problems go away? Do all problems, like the phony letter claims, get looked at the highest levels? Do all problems get resolved to the taxpayer’s satisfaction? No, no and no.
The point is that this country does allow for individuals to directly question government activity and, if still not satisfied, call upon their elected officials to intervene without retribution. This is unheard of around the globe. The answer may not be a good one, but it is hard to argue that taxpayers did not at least get a chance … by relying on skillful communications.