A nation needs tax revenue to pay for the things we all need and that should be held as common goods and services. We have no trouble paying taxes, though we certainly wish the wealthy paid their fair share. What we, and lots of other people, have trouble with sometimes is filing taxes. If it seems unnecessarily complicated and time-consuming, it’s because it is. While the U.S. tax forms might be only a handful of pages long, the instructions for filing taxes runs to over 130.

Every President since Ronald Reagan, Democrats and Republicans alike, have promised a system of free and direct filing. This year, President Biden is taking the first steps to fulfilling that promise with the pilot program launch of Direct File..

Other countries have shown it can be done.

“The reason why Tax Day is a breeze in places like the Netherlands or Japan is because that’s the day when the government just sends you a pre-populated form,” according to video journalist Johnny Harris in a New York Times video that’s well worth watching. “You can either approve it or you can amend it if you think you qualify for some credit or write-off or if you think they did the math wrong. But if you approve it, you’re done in just a few minutes.”

Sounds dreamy. So, what’s the hold up? Well, listen to Times editorial board writer Binya Appelbaum’s explanation, also in the Times video.

“There is a company that dominates the tax preparation industry in the United States. It makes billions of dollars by charging Americans to help them complete their taxes. It makes a product called TurboTax, which, for most Americans, is practically synonymous with doing your taxes. And it has made an industry out of something that ought to be a public service.”

That company is Intuit, and for decades it has hired the best lobbyists to block the Internal Revenue Service from offering a free tax filing tool. In a rare and unfortunate moment of bipartisanship, the company has been able to influence Republicans and Democrats alike with its fundraising prowess.

As I’ve said many times, including when we joined the Coalition for Free and Fair Filing (CFFF) last summer, “Businesses do one thing: They sell stuff.” And they don’t take kindly when the government comes along to offer what they sell for free, even when it’s a public good that should belong to all of us.

In that article, I also pointed out that Intuit had net income of about $2 billion last year and their top five executives made $80.7 million. The company donated $646,000 to political candidates and organizations in 2022. They also spent $3.5 million in federal lobbying in 2022, and in 2023 outpaced all of their previous first quarter spending on lobbying—$980,000. (I’ve also written about how Intuit’s behavior follows a well-worn pattern of corporate PR nonsense, which I explored more fully the book I co-authored, Corporate Bullsh*t: Exposing the Lies and Half-Truths That Protect Profit, Power, and Wealth in America).

Direct File isn’t for everyone—yet.

As a pilot program, the IRS is rolling it out carefully in mid-March in a dozen states and with a number of eligibility requirements.

You can use Direct File if you live in one of the states included in the rollout (Arizona, California, Florida, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Nevada, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming) and if your tax situation from 2023 was relatively simple, and you want to claim common credits like the EITC and the CTC. If your income came primarily from W-2 employment, you’re likely eligible. Direct File has a screener tool that will make sure it’s the right tool for you before you start filing. Visit directfile.irs.govon your computer, tablet, or phone to find out if you’re eligible in a few minutes.

If the pilot is successful, it will begin to include more and more Americans. And someday, we might just answer a two-question survey from the IRS, and never again have to beware the Ides of April.

Donald Cohen
Executive Director

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