On Capitol Hill, tax assistance is at your doorstep 2 IRS offices benefit lawmakers

April 14, 1993|By Nelson Schwartz | Nelson Schwartz,Contributing Writer

WASHINGTON -- While millions of taxpayers struggle with their returns this week, the people who write the tax laws are able to take advantage of one of Congress' unpublicized perks: free tax help from the Internal Revenue Service.

Even as perks such as bounce-free checking at the House Bank and a masseur in the House gym disappear, membership still has its privileges, and this one comes in handy.

Every February, the IRS opens an office on each side of Capitol Hill to help members and their staffers cope with the complexities of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code. Theoretically, the offices are open to the public, but few outsiders know about their existence.

A letter from the Senate's sergeant at arms informing Congress of the free assistance doesn't mention that the offices are open to the public, saying only that IRS agents have been assigned "to assist members and staff in filing their 1992 federal income tax returns." The offices will close tomorrow after helping procrastinators meet the April 15 deadline.

This week a line of last-minute filers curled out of the cramped office in the Senate's Dirksen Office Building and into a hallway. An IRS representative sat patiently in the wood-paneled office going over returns and checking figures as a group of staffers queued up.

The IRS says it doesn't know how many members actually use the perk, and the lawmakers are unlikely to be spotted standing in line. But even if they don't go to the IRS offices, many legislators turn to private accountants or their aides to figure out their taxes.

"They'd be foolish not to use an accountant," said a spokesman for one Senate Finance Committee member. "There is just too much risk."

Even those on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee are reluctant to prepare their own returns, although their staffers are encouraged to learn more about the tax code by going it alone.

Rep. Bill Archer of Texas, the ranking Republican on Ways and Means, has been known to consult with committee staff members on his tax questions.

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat and another Ways and Means member, uses a private accountant. So do Maryland Reps. Kweisi Mfume, Steny H. Hoyer, Helen Delich Bentley, Albert R. Wynn and Wayne T. Gilchrest.

Maryland Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes prepares his own return; a spokesman for Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski would only say that the senator does not use the IRS help on the Hill.

Mrs. Bentley said she isn't familiar with the IRS service. "I'm not interested in it," she added. "If I ever used it, I'd get criticized for it."

Even if members don't take advantage of the service, it's a perk they don't deserve, said Pete Sepp, a spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union.

"This is an example of Congress insulating itself from the real world again," said Mr. Sepp, whose fiscally conservative group is critical of the tax system.

"How many of us get a busy signal from the IRS at this time of year?" he asked. "I'm sure members of Congress don't have any problems getting through."

The IRS first opened the offices in the 1960s at the request of Congress, adding another goody to the subsidized meals and haircuts, free medical care and prescriptions, free parking at National Airport and other perks enjoyed by members.

In the wake of last year's public outrage over the House Bank scandal, many perks have come under attack. The price of meals and haircuts was increased along with the fee for the House gym. Free prescriptions are gone, and there is now a charge for medical care.

But no one has made an issue of the free tax help, which the IRS defends as no different from the 13 other offices available to the public in Maryland and the District of Columbia.

"It is not a perk," said Domenic LaPonzina, a spokesman for the Baltimore district of the Internal Revenue Service, which includes Maryland and the District of Columbia.

Mr. LaPonzina rejects the notion that the IRS puts representatives within easy reach to keep Congress happy.

"We provide assistance to all who need it," he said. "If that improves our relationship with all our constituencies, fine."

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