White House Unveils Taxpayer Receipt

Today – on what would be Tax Day, had it not been delayed by Washington, DC's Emanicipation Day holiday – the White House released a new taxpayer receipt tool.

Although the White House calls it "the first-ever federal taxpayer receipt," it actually isn't. As we detailed in The Watcher last year, a 1999 appropriations bill included a requirement that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) establish such a site. The IRS set up the site in 2000, although it discontinued the site at some point after that. (We never did hear back from the IRS about what happened.)

The new site fulfills President Obama's pledge from this year's State of the Union address: "Because you deserve to know exactly how and where your tax dollars are being spent, you’ll be able to go to a website and get that information for the very first time in history."

In addition, bipartisan legislation to require a taxpayer receipt has been introduced in the Senate (S. 437) and the House (H.R. 1527).

My first impression of the site is that it's attractive and fairly easy to understand. Including both a detailed table and a pie chart is particularly helpful for conceptualizing where one's tax dollars go.

But the site falls down a bit in requiring users to enter the amount of income tax and Social Security and Medicare contributions – three numbers – rather than simply entering their income, although the site does offer a few "profiles" of various income levels. While less precise, allowing users to input their income rather than their actual tax payments would make the site easier to use, especially if you don't have your 1040 at hand.

In addition, as we discussed in The Watcher, knowing the spending numbers is only half the story. To help citizens really understand the budget situation – necessary for meaningful public participation in the fierce budget debates expected throughout the year – expenditures have to be contextualized within historical spending trends as well as information on program performance and public needs.

It's a useful start. Hopefully it can begin to improve the widespread misconceptions about the contours of the federal budget.

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