Can't Get Through to the IRS? Call Your GOP Congressman
"Unless we are able to correct this," National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson warned in November, "very bad things will happen to taxpayers." By "this," Olson meant five straight years of budget cuts and staffing reductions at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Now, thanks to Congressional Republicans once again targeting Uncle Sam's tax collector for political payback, the chickens have come home to roost. While only 40 percent of callers can even get through to the IRS help-line, refunds are being delayed as the agency faces furloughs. Meanwhile, IRS officials say they don't have the manpower to chase down tax cheats who owe the U.S. Treasury less than a million dollars even as the percentage of audits plunged to a 10-year low. It's no wonder BusinessWeek declared, "The IRS Sucks."
But if Americans are "seeing red" over what Olson called the "worst filing season" in years, that's because they should. The shocking decline in customer service levels is purely the result of Republican sabotage of the IRS. With its draconian budget cuts and workforce downsizing at the IRS, the GOP isn't just making taxpayers miserable. Republicans are costing Uncle Sam tens of billions of dollars of lost revenue annually.
A recent analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) summed up the impact for the IRS of having lost 18 percent of its funding and 13,000 agents since 2010 even as its responsibilities and the volume of returns jumped by seven percent. With the "tax gap" between what Americans owe and what they actually pay now estimated to top $500 billion a year, "IRS funding cuts continue to compromise taxpayer service and weaken enforcement." Nevertheless, Republicans like Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-FL) pretend that result is a bug, and not a feature, of years of GOP policy:
"[M]ore money is not the only solution...The IRS has the flexibility to ensure that its limited resources are used as cost-effectively as possible...
"We deliberately lowered the IRS funding to a level to make them think twice about what they were doing and why. They don't have a dime to spare on anything frivolous or foolhardy or even middling. The IRS should and must focus on the most important, the most egregious and the most in need."
Unfortunately, that's not how the world--or basic math--works.
In the recent "CRomnibus" spending bill, Congressional Republicans once again took an ax to their least favorite government agency:
Spending negotiators this week froze most agency budgets but reduced the IRS funds to $10.9 billion, a 3 percent cut over last year and $1.5 billion below the president's request. Appropriators bragged in a release that the level is even lower than the IRS's 2008 budget.
Those new cuts come atop more than a $1 billion reduction to the IRS budget since 2010, which has forced the tax-collecting agency to shed 13,000 employees while it serves an additional 7 million taxpayers, according to IRS Commissioner John Koskinen.
The results of this right-wing temper tantrum are as predictable as they are counterproductive. IRS customer service will continue its steady erosion. Even before the cuts, only 53 percent of taxpayers calling the agency for help were projected to even get through, while wait times were forecast to grow to 34 minutes. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen warned that the tax collector may have to resort to furloughs and shutdowns to balance its own books, painful steps which could delay taxpayers' refund checks. Meanwhile, the government's ability to prevent, detect and punish tax cheats, frauds and evaders will be further curtailed, with the result that the estimated $500 billion "tax gap" between what Americans owe Uncle Sam each year and what they actually pay will continue to grow.
As it turns out, the House GOP caucus was only delivering on RNC Chairman Reince Priebus' April promise that "we're done playing footsie here with the IRS" over its supposed scandals. But the real scandal is that Republicans and their conservative amen corner have for decades been doing something much worse to the IRS.
After their successful 1990s crusade to defang the Internal Revenue Service, the GOP is once again slashing its budget, demonizing its employees and even questioning the legitimacy of its mission. With its funding cut by Congress for five years in a row, the agency now has 10 percent fewer agents and officers than five years ago and fewer agents auditing returns than at any time since at least the 1980s. Even as congressional Republicans have blocked Obama administration efforts to end "inversions" that enable American corporations to move overseas to avoid paying taxes, the Government Accountability Office reported an epidemic of tax dodging by small businesses. The result is that the tax gap has mushroomed to an estimated $500 billion from $195 billion in 1998. To put that in context, that's roughly equal to the entire projected federal budget deficit for the past year.
By punishing the IRS for scandals that did not materialize and for simply doing its job in managing Obamacare tax credits and penalties, the GOP has opted for a "penny-wise, pound-foolish" policy of the worst kind. The IRS has repeatedly explained that each additional dollar added to its budget produces between seven and 10 times more revenue for the United States Treasury. As Ezra Klein pointed out when House Republicans first slashed the IRS budget in 2011:
Converting dollar bills into $10 bills is an excellent way to pay off your credit card. Except, it seems, if you're a House Republican.
It's with good reason Jonathan Cohn labeled the GOP the "pro-deficits, pro-tax evasion" party. In the summer of 2013, then House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) announced his party's intent to slash IRS by 25 percent, a move even Charles Krauthammer called "silly and small." For his part, IRS chief John Koskinen recently warned that there is little he can do about a GOP-controlled Congress still seeking retribution for "the problems of the past...overspending on conferences, making some ill-advised videos and, of course, inappropriate scrutiny of applications from groups seeking social welfare status and others." But that wasn't Koskinen's only warning to Congress:
"I have not figured out either philosophically or psychologically why nobody seems to care whether we collect the revenue or not."
The other result, Koskinen lamented, is "really crummy customer service" when "more than six out of every 10 people who call can't reach a customer service representative."
So if you're one of those six in 10, don't blame the IRS. Call your Republican representative instead.