WASHINGTON - At this time of year, when most Americans have just filed their returns, exasperation with the income tax system reaches a peak. Hardly anyone denies it's a complex mess.
In 2010, calculating their taxes cost Americans $168 billion, estimates the Taxpayer Advocate Service of the Internal Revenue Service.
That's about 15 percent of taxes collected - a heavy overhead. Almost 60 percent of taxpayers pay accountants or other tax preparers.
Public esteem for the tax system is low; in a 2011 Pew poll, 55 percent judged it unfair. Disaffection was fairly even politically: 47 percent among Republicans, 58 percent among Democrats and 56 percent among independents.
So "tax reform" ought to be a cinch, right? Well, no.
True, it's again on the national agenda. Both the White House and congressional Republicans support it. But judged realistically, the odds of major "reform" passing seem slim.
The job is technically daunting (the tax code runs almost 74,000 pages). There's ample competition for Congress' attention: an immigration overhaul, gun control plus the ongoing budget battle.
Most important, the apparent consensus to "do something" is a mirage, erased by three major problems.
* Democrats and Republicans - with some exceptions - have fundamentally different views of what constitutes "reform."
Republicans have generally remained faithful to the central idea behind the landmark Tax Reform Act of 1986, which commanded bipartisan support.
Tax reform then meant "broadening the base" - eliminating tax deductions, credits and other tax preferences - and using the resulting revenues to lower overall tax rates. The Tax Reform Act reduced the top individual rate from 50 percent to 28 percent.
Now, Republicans want any new tax reform bill also to be "revenue neutral."
By contrast, Democrats - again, with exceptions - now see "reform" as a way to make the system more progressive. They'd raise taxes on the well-to-do and rich through higher rates or fewer preferences.
The extra revenue would go to deficit reduction or middle-class tax relief.
* Though deplored in the abstract, tax breaks are popular with the public and politicians.
The value of tax breaks is roughly reckoned at about $1 trillion annually. There seems ample room for trimming.
Guess again. Tax breaks have huge constituencies.