IS THIS REALLY TAX SIMPLIFICATION?

The talk around coffee machines here has a new focal point.

There are still those who want to discuss the Iran arms scandal and its political fallout.Some think, for example that White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan may stay on after all, but others say he may go sometime later when it can be argued, however weakly, that he is not departing under

pressure.But there is a tendency to put discussion of the scandal on a partial hold, pending the disclosures of the many investigations under way.

The other burning issue here in recent months - football - gets much less attention now. There is some talk of the Super Bowl but many people here will view it the way they viewed the World Series over the years since the departed Senators were last in it (1933) - from the outside.

A veil of silence has settled around the primary football interest, the fortunes of the Redskins, in much the way that a family suddenly stops mentioning the uncle who left the aunt for a toe dancer.

Before the dollar's latest free fall, at least, attention had shifted from the 'Skins' 50-gut and 70-chip plays to the Internal Revenue Service's new W-4 forms.

It was not an easy transition from football to those forms for estimating individual withholding under the many changes wrought by the Tax Reform Act of 1986.

But one admonition on the form subtly makes you sit up and take notice. If you've read the form yet, you will remember it as the one that says:

Penalty. - You may be fined $500 if, with no reasonable basis, you file a Form W-4 that results in less tax being withheld than is properly allowable. In addition, criminal penalties apply for willfully supplying false or fraudulent information or failing to supply information requiring an increase in withholding.

Let's put aside the second part of that - most taxpayers would no more think of outright fraud than they would think of, say, asking a Brunei potentate for money for Nicaraguan rebels.

But the first part about no reasonable basis, does that include a plain, old, reasonable mistake?

As for the amount of withholding that is properly allowable, what is the margin for error - $10, $100, $1,000?

The IRS should know by now that many of us operate on the Bob Newhart theory of accounting - I had always felt, you know, if you got within two or three bucks of it . . . but this never really caught on and as a consequence I held a number of accounting jobs, as he once explained it.

So many complaints about the new form have reached the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas, that he has written the IRS to ask for something simpler.

The senator acknowledged that Congress had ordered the IRS to find a more accurate way to determine withholding but, he said, Our goals will not be realized if workers are unable to decipher the form because of its complexity.

If your tax situation has taken you into the darker corners of the new form, you probably will agree with the senator.

My own case was less complicated but I still have a complaint of sorts: Instead of doing my federal taxes once this year, in effect, I will come close to doing them twice.

And the task of doing federal and then state taxes each year has been brightened, if that's the word, on only one occasion. It dates way back to when a friend, early in his 1040-filing career, asked me to check his return.

It was puzzling: He had a little more income than I, the same number of exemptions and appar ently very similar deductions, but would pay much less federal tax.

I had to scan his form several times to find that he had taken one deduction that I had not: the amount of his federal withholding.

When I suggested that such a deduction wouldn't fly, he countered that he had always deducted his withholding - a tradition that he and the IRS later discussed, I believe.

The final irony in this year's W-4 form is that the IRS seems to expect you to have questions it doesn't resolve. Witness the list of other IRS publications the form refers you to.

Its citation of the IRS Publication 590, Individual Retirement Arrangements is understandable, given the changes the reform act made in this area.

But catch the note of IRS doubt in the form's statement that After your new Form W-4 takes effect, you should check to see if you are having the proper amount withheld. To do this, you may want to get 'Publication 919, Is My Withholding Correct?'

You may have thought that was exactly the point of the W-4 exercise. No matter, the form goes on to say: For more details on withholding, get 'Publication 505, Tax Withholding and Estimated Tax, and 'Publication 553, Highlights of 1986 Tax Law Changes.'

I am thinking of putting out a tax publication of my own. It will be called, Publication 911, This is Tax Simplification?

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