There was quite a bit of discussion last week (and it seems to be continuing this week) regarding the IRS's interest in certifying tax preparers. The Tax Update Blog contains a healthy discussion between several tax pros on the topic. For what it's worth, here is my ten cents (keep the change).
In short, I like the idea. And the reason is simple; Title 26 of the U.S. Code is statutory law, and complex or not, applying any law requires a minimum amount of education, understanding, and experience. The only way to test education, understanding, and experience is through some sort of certification process.
But passing a test once is no guarantee of future competence, particularly with respect to the Internal Revenue Code. There must also be continuing education requirements to ensure a basic exposure to each year's changes. A certification process will, hopefully, require some sort of continuing education to maintain certification.
The last thing I think a certification process will increase is integrity. To deduct or not deduct, at times, is two-parts law and one-part ethics. A preparer will, at one point in her career, need to tell the taxpayer, "no, it's not deductible, and I do not care if your brother joe is taking the deduction." Through certification, the preparer now has something to lose for playing audit roulette - a license to earn a living. People act differently when they have something to lose.
One of the counter-arguments include increased cost to taxpayers. That is a real possibility. But my counter to this argument is that a more knowledgeable tax preparer should complete a return faster than one who is less knowledgeable. This phenomena plays out in my office ever year. Staff accountants almost always take longer to prepare a return, that's why we bill them at a lower rate - so the client doesn't get hosed.
Currently, CPA's and Enrolled Agents are the only tax-related certifications I know of. Each has passed an exam that has a significant focus on tax - the special enrollment exam is certainly the more rigorous tax exam of the two. It may come as a surprise, but lawyers are not always part of this group. In my opinion the bar exam does not test enough tax. Further, most law students take only federal income tax; largely an introductory course of income tax case law as it applies to individuals.
Tax lawyers, however, are a special class. Most go on to receive further education solely in tax law. And after a few year's of experience they are certainly qualified. For purposes of certification, however, it may not matter. Most people do not go to a lawyer to get their tax return prepared.
Finally, though already a CPA, I would be happy to take any exam or fulfill any certification requirement that the IRS introduces. I have never suffered from more education.