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Trying to help, the IRS identified “three simple steps” employers needed to follow, but the GAO found “the three steps become 15 calculations, 11 of which are based on seven worksheets, some of which request multiple columns of information.”

Mr. Arensmeyer said claiming the credit will be simpler once it becomes standard in tax-preparation software.

As it stands now, the credit is only temporary, expiring in 2016. That’s another reason Congress appears unlikely to adopt the administration’s proposed fixes, which would cost an estimated $14 billion that has to be offset with cuts elsewhere.

If the health care law withstands Supreme Court scrutiny, more employers could start claiming the credit. Otherwise, it may just go down as a missed opportunity, for policymakers and small-business owners alike.