Link Tax Day with Election Day: Congressman

Published February 1, 2007

Congressman Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) has sponsored a bill, H.R. 77 (H.R. 442 in the 109th Congress), to move the deadline for filing federal income tax returns from April 15 to the first Monday in November–the day before Election Day. He proposes the move as a way to strengthen the link between the politicians we elect and the taxes we pay.

Pete Sepp and Kristina Rasmussen of the National Taxpayers Union spoke with Bartlett about his proposal.

Sepp & Rasmussen: Moving tax filing day right before Election Day is an ingenious way to connect tax policy with politics. When and where did you first pick up on this idea? What response have you received from your constituents and taxpayers across the country?

Bartlett: Pocketbook issues are among the most important considerations for voters. Taxes are the most visible price we pay for our government. So taxes are among the most important issues in any election. However, the tax filing deadline on April 15 is about as far way in time from Election Day as it can be on the calendar.

Columnist Jane Chastain has said the April 15 date poses an “out of sight, out of mind” challenge for taxpayers. I agree with Kristina [Rasmussen] who wrote recently [for the November 6 National Review Online] that the current filing deadline amounts to the “ultimate buy now, pay later scheme.”

After Labor Day is when most Americans decide whether they should participate in elections.

It’s when Americans are most interested and get the most information persuading them how to cast their vote. They weigh the performance of incumbents. They consider the promises of candidates. They consider if they’re getting their money’s worth from their government.

It just made sense to me that having the most visible price of government at the top of their mind at this time would be valuable and useful information. That’s just what moving the tax filing deadline to the first Monday in November, one day before Election Day, would do.

This proposal gets an enthusiastic reaction from constituents and taxpayers. I first introduced this bill in the 107th Congress and have reintroduced it ever since.

Sepp & Rasmussen: Eighteen of your House colleagues have co-sponsored H.R. 442, and they represent a “who’s who” list of taxpayer advocates. Aside from these folks, how have other members reacted to the proposal?

Bartlett: Most members, frankly, have never heard about the proposal. The bill has been supported in the past by the National Taxpayers Union and Americans for Tax Reform. However, it just hasn’t been among their highest priorities.

I think the appropriate judgment was made to pursue comprehensive tax and Social Security reforms with a Republican president and Republican Congresses. This proposal was buried by that larger effort.

Sepp & Rasmussen: This proposal has mainly garnered support from conservatives, but could this bill find additional support from champions of higher taxes and more spending by connecting tax dollars paid to the funding of pet programs? Will this argument have any kind of resonance with the incoming Democratic members of the House?

Bartlett: Democrats and Republicans both need to attract the support of more and new voters every cycle. There’s a famous furniture store with the slogan, “an informed consumer is our best customer.” Since all workers have to file income taxes, I think this change would encourage more workers to vote.

Consumer advocacy, good government, and “progressive” groups should welcome a proposal that would encourage more workers to vote and more voter participation in general.

These are arguments that should resonate with Democrats. However, they are arguments that have yet to be made.

Sepp & Rasmussen: Some skeptics worry that shifting tax filing day would, at least initially, create record-keeping headaches for individual taxpayers and place a large compliance cost burden on private enterprise. What is your response to these concerns?

Bartlett: I don’t think these are serious impediments. Congress has shifted the tax filing day twice in the past, from March 1 to March 15 to the current April 15.

The National Taxpayers Union found it cost $1.20 per person to inform affected taxpayers about increases in the child tax credit in 2003.

Sepp & Rasmussen: Many states use April 15 as a due date for filing state taxes. How might moving the federal filing date affect state tax filings?

Bartlett: I think there would be momentum for states to shift their filing dates to match the federal government.

Sepp & Rasmussen: How might the results in the 2006 elections have differed if voters had filed their taxes on November 6 before voting on November 7? How might the policy priorities of your colleagues have changed?

Bartlett: We can’t go back and redo the 2006 elections. We can only move forward.

This proposal is a simple change that would have profound results. The biggest effect of this proposal would be to encourage Americans who think they pay too much in taxes to register and vote for candidates who promise to reduce them.

That’s why I hope there will be more enthusiasm and support in the 110th Congress for this proposal by taxpayer advocacy groups.

Encouraging more voter participation could be the most important variable to shift the dynamics of the campaigns and the outcome of the 2008 elections. If this shift in the tax filing deadline is effective on Election Day 2008, there will be more and better-informed voters participating.

Incumbents and candidates would consider the views of workers and taxpayers as their highest priority in reaching out to voters. That would be a good thing for the country and the future of our children and grandchildren.

If this idea becomes a top priority for taxpayer advocacy groups and advocates for increasing civic participation in government, a bipartisan coalition of support can be built.

Sepp & Rasmussen: Some tax policy experts say income tax withholding is likewise responsible (perhaps even more responsible) for the disconnect between paying taxes and voting, because deducting taxes from each paycheck makes the yearly total amount less discernible. Do you think this issue should be addressed in separate legislation?

Bartlett: Withholding would be a much more significant structural and costly change that is a non-starter for a Democratic Congress. I would definitely pursue these as separate pieces of legislation.

Sepp & Rasmussen: The majority of American households received income tax refunds, averaging more than $2,400 last year. Could this trend lull some taxpayers into thinking the system is fine as is because they falsely believe they “got money from the government” when they simply received their own money back without earning interest on it?

Bartlett: The perception among those expecting refunds that they get money back from the government might make advocates of higher government spending more enthusiastic about shifting the tax filing day to the day before Election Day.

Pete Sepp ([email protected]) and Kristina Rasmussen ([email protected]) are vice president for communications and senior government affairs manager, respectively, for the National Taxpayers Union.