Nina Olson is the National Taxpayer Advocate - the voice of the
public at the IRS. She's trying to help you navigate the tax code
you love to loathe.
It was supposed to be her benevolent deed for the day - helping a
family member with a tax return. But soon Nina Olson was lost in the
labyrinth that is the United States tax code.
The problem at hand was an Individual Retirement Arrangement
(IRA) - how to know which contributions to it would be tax-
deductible for a person who had some job income while also receiving
Social Security benefits.
Yes, there's a special IRS worksheet for that. Three of them,
actually, in Appendix B of Internal Revenue Service Publication 590.
"The calculations were so unbelievable," says Ms. Olson. "It was
something like enter Line 2 on Line 12; divide by 83; multiply times
four, and then times 0.125 or something."
Olson stoically did the best she could. But it wasn't good
enough. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) ended up notifying her
family member of a mistake on the calculations.
It's the kind of bad tax day that could happen to anyone. As it
turns out, though, Olson isn't just any average American. She's one
of the most knowledgeable people on earth about the IRS and US tax
By the time she wrangled with these worksheets in exasperation,
she had already made a whole career in the tax field: earning a
living preparing returns, becoming a tax lawyer, founding a
nonprofit to help people with tax problems, and then assuming the
role of National Taxpayer Advocate - a kind of "voice of the people"
within the IRS. If Olson finds the tax code bewildering, it's little
wonder millions of Americans do, too.
Taxpayers, meet your champion at the agency you love to loathe.
Citizens tired of form-filling burdens, meet someone who agrees with
you and who has a megaphone in Washington - a big one.
She's not just another ombudsperson at some random federal
agency. The IRS, as Americans are reminded every April 15, is the
government's revenue-collection arm. And with nearly 100,000 people
working at the agency - scouring returns, conducting audits, filing
lawsuits against delinquent payers - that arm is a long one.
To enter Olson's world is to gain a rare view of the workings of
a federal revenue machine that takes in about one-fifth of America's
annual income, currently in excess of $2.3 trillion. It offers a
window into the flaws of the tax code and the trials individuals
face with the IRS.
In some respects, the woman who sits at the center of this
vilified but vital institution isn't any different from you or me.
She's a single mother, a pet lover (one dog and two cats), a
knitter, a fine-arts major who dabbles in textile design on
weekends. And, yes, she does her own tax returns.
Yet there are differences, too. She sits down the hall from the
all-powerful commissioner of the IRS, oversees 2,000 people, travels
the country giving speeches about a tax code as impenetrable as a
Kevlar vest, testifies regularly before Congress, and, most
important, gets paid to question - even defy - her employer on your
Olson wields significant clout, influencing policy on Capitol
Hill and within the IRS, where her army of caseworkers can win
relief for as many as 200,000 individuals per year. Many experts say
she's been not merely an effective National Taxpayer Advocate (NTA),
but also has largely defined the job during its formative period.
"She has very much shaped the office," says Christopher Bergin,
publisher of Tax Analysts, a leading tracker of the tax code. "She's
tenacious. She's brilliant. She's a hard driver."
Olson describes herself as an accidental occupant of the office.
She never set out with a goal of holding a prominent government
position, but her background girded her with some crucial job
traits: knowing the tax problems Americans face and being unafraid
to battle entrenched powers. …