The U.S. Taxpayer Bill of Rights: Window Dressing or Expression of Justice?

Alice G. Abreu, Richard K. Greenstein


The subject of taxpayer rights is receiving increasing attention worldwide.  Tax scholars, practitioners, and administrators are grappling with the challenges of delivering on the promise of taxpayer rights, the benefits of success, and the price of failure.  Nevertheless, a fundamental question has escaped pointed examination:  What does the concept of taxpayer rights offer?

In this paper we suggest an answer to that question. Our focus is the U. S. Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TBOR). At first blush, the TBOR may seem to be no more than window dressing because it does not codify legal remedies for violations of the enumerated taxpayer rights. Nevertheless, we argue that by its explicit use of the language of rights and by its adoption by the IRS and enactment by Congress, the TBOR generates a powerful normative force that supports enforcement. That force, in turn, can change the behavior of the IRS toward taxpayers and support calls for Congress, Treasury, or the courts to fashion legal remedies. Put differently, there is strong reason to predict that the adoption and enactment of the TBOR will make the administration of the tax law more just.

Our format is a bit unconventional. What follows is a dialogue in which we ask and answer challenging questions. We believe this format clarifies the fundamental issues raised by the concept of taxpayer rights and best illuminates some of the tensions generated.

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