Document Type

Article

Publication Date

3-1-2019

Abstract

Tax statutes have long been derided as convoluted and unreadable. But there is little existing research about drafting practices that helps us contextualize such critiques. In this Article, we conduct the first in-depth empirical examination of how tax law drafting and formulation decisions are made. We report findings from interviews with government counsels who participated in the tax legislative process over the past four decades. Our interviews revealed that tax legislation drafting decisions are both targeted to and controlled by experts. Most counsels did not consider statutory formulation or readability important, as long as substantive meaning was accurate. Many held this view because their intended audience was tax experts, regulation writers, and software companies, not ordinary taxpayers. When revising law, drafters prioritize preserving existing formulations to not upset settled expectations, even at the cost of increasing convolution. While members of Congress (“Members”), Members’ staff, and committee staff participate in high-level policy decisions, statutory formulation decisions are largely left to a small number of tax law specialists.

Our findings carry important implications for statutory interpretation, affirming prior research, but also calling into deeper question arguments for textualism and the validity of certain interpretive canons. Our findings also have important implications for the design of our tax system, illuminating the distributive tradeoffs inherent in drafting practices. Finally, our findings reveal a contrast between public expectations about the legislative process and how the process actually works, underscoring underexplored questions about what makes this process legitimate.

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