Americans are just a week from April 15, the deadline to file their federal tax returns. If you're having trouble and hoping the Internal Revenue Service might be able to help answer questions, the Washington Post reports
you might not enjoy the experience. Congress slashed the agency's budget over the course of several years, and the IRS itself describes the state of customer service as "abysmal."
Nationwide, only 4 in 10 callers to the agency's toll-free help line are getting through to a real person. The number of "courtesy disconnects" — a euphemism for an overloaded system hanging up on the customer — has reached 5 million so far this year, the agency reported. When callers do get a real person, they can forget about asking questions that require expertise. These are now considered "out of scope." The customer-service agents have been instructed to only tell callers what tax forms they need, where to get them and where to look for online information. Staff can no longer offer line-by-line assistance, provide guidance on tax planning or tax law, or help make payment arrangements.
Even if you don't have questions or need a hand, the fact that the IRS has been gutted affects everyone: the Post's report added, "And with 5,000 fewer agents than four years ago to go after tax cheats, officials estimate that $2 billion in revenue will go uncollected."
I think there's probably a caricature in some people's minds of bloated government offices filled with wasteful spending and bored paper-pushers punching a clock. Let's be clear: that's not the IRS, where offices no longer have printers because the agency couldn't afford the maintenance contract. Some employees in field offices -- the ones that haven't already been closed -- have been told by operations managers that they can't afford calculators or calendars.
For years, Republicans have been looking for an IRS scandal. Given the tax agency's current predicament, I'd say we've found one.
If you're one of the many Americans who called the IRS and faced an indefinite hold, or found yourself hung up on, it's no doubt tempting to blame the agency itself. That would be understandable, but it would also be wrong.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recently published a report
on the IRS's budget, which suggests a deliberate process was put in place: congressional Republicans set out to cripple the agency and the plan was quite successful.
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) budget has been cut by 18 percent since 2010, after adjusting for inflation. The cuts have forced the IRS to reduce its workforce, severely scale back employee training, and delay much-needed upgrades to information technology systems. These steps, in turn, have weakened the IRS's ability to enforce the nation's tax laws and serve taxpayers efficiently, as the National Taxpayer Advocate, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, the IRS Oversight Board, and the Government Accountability Office all have documented. [...] Funding cuts also weaken the agency's ability to curb tax fraud, tax evasion, and other illegal activities.... These cuts make no sense from a fiscal perspective, as the return on investment in enforcement spending is high. Each additional $1 spent on IRS enforcement yields $6 or more of additional revenue from collecting taxes owed under current law, according to the Treasury Department. Cuts in IRS enforcement funding are increasing the budget deficit.
The new House and Senate budgets, approved shortly before members gave themselves a two-week Spring Break, demanded more cuts to the IRS's budget.
But that's not the funny part. This
is the funny part.
Senate Republicans have a message for the IRS commissioner: It's on you if this tax season is miserable for taxpayers. John Koskinen, the IRS chief, has warned taxpayers for weeks that services and protections will be scaled back this filing season, which came just weeks after Congress slashed the agency's budget by $346 million. But Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee say that the IRS can surely find savings to make life easier for taxpayers....
This is really an extraordinary scam, isn't it?
Step 1: Congressional Republicans gut the IRS budget.
Step 2: The IRS is crippled and struggles badly.
Step 3: Congressional Republicans blame the IRS for its poor performance.
Following up on our discussion
from December, I'm not blind to the political circumstances. Defending the IRS funding isn't exactly a sexy topic and we'll never see an organized "Leave the IRS Alone!" campaign.
But we're talking about an agency that collects the resources needed to fund our government. Gutting the agency, on purpose, results in real-world consequences.