Nina Olson, the National Taxpayer Advocate, retired last week after 18 years on the job. Few taxpayers knew who she was (even those her office helped navigate the tax system). But in the world of tax policy and administration, Nina was an outsized figure.
She was passionate, blunt, and relentless on behalf of those issues that moved her, especially the agency’s persistent underfunding and what she saw as the IRS’s often-shabby treatment of low-income taxpayers. Some saw her aggressiveness as a necessary tool to raise the profile of these issues. Others saw it as counterproductive: She made plenty of noise, they said, but achieved relatively little.
There is some truth to both views, not surprising for someone who remained in a controversial government post for nearly two decades.
The Taxpayer Advocate Service plays multiple roles: It has a staff of more than 1,600 who help individual taxpayers resolve problems with the IRS. It manages the Low-Income Taxpayer Clinics and a panel of grassroots volunteers who advise the agency on taxpayer service issues. It evaluates IRS performance and advocates both inside the agency and in Congress. My TPC colleague Bob Weinberger calls Nina, “the inside agitator.”
Every year, Nina sent Congress voluminous critiques of the tax system. For example, last December she sent Congress 58 separate recommendations for improvements. Her most recent annual report to Congress ran 664 pages, plus an additional 200+ pages of supplement material. Much too long. Much too detailed. Yet, I refer to these volumes all the time.
They are unedited by the higher ups at the IRS or Treasury. And Nina rarely pulled punches. As Bob remembers, she rarely ran out of in-your-face descriptions. She has called the agency “foolhardy” and described its taxpayer service as …”woefully inadequate…remarkably poor…and …abysmal” Once, she said the agency was acting “like a coercive bully.”
Nina began her career as an accountant and tax return preparer in Chapel Hill, NC. After getting a law degree she opened a nonprofit low-income tax clinic in Richmond VA.
That work, as well as her personal experience as a single mother who received the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), stayed with Nina her whole career. She often reminded IRS staffers about how their actions affected low-income filers, most of whom had no access to assistance in disputes with the agency.
Nina often argued that in the name of efficiency, Congress and the IRS made filing more difficult for those with low incomes, limited reading ability, or limited access to computers.
For her, there were two US tax systems—one for those who could afford qualified professional assistance and one for those who could not.
That why she focused so intently on the EITC, improved customer service, and tougher regulation of paid tax preparers.
Nina has said she wants to retire to a farm where she will raise goats and sheep. Perhaps. But she also has created her own non-profit called, unsurprisingly, the Center for Taxpayer Rights. Nina’s two decades as the uppercase National Taxpayer Advocate have come to an end. But she is still going to be a lowercase national taxpayer advocate. I don’t think we’ve heard the last of her.