At the IRS, a plan comes together

Dating back to the time of Jesus and no doubt long before that, tax collectors have been unpopular people. Nobody likes them. Nobody has a kind word to say about them. And defending tax collectors as necessary to a civilized society is never more difficult than during tax season.

To make matters worse, if an American taxpayer called the IRS this week for answers to a question or help on a return, he or she probably became extremely frustrated. Wait times were extraordinarily long, and if predictions proved true, more than half of the calls into IRS help centers weren’t answered at all.

In fact, you could not have created a situation more likely to make the American public angry at the incompetent, arrogant, unresponsive government agency that is the IRS if you had set out to do it on purpose. Which is pretty much what the Republicans in Congress have done.

Compared to a decade ago, the IRS today processes 11 percent more returns from individuals, 18 percent more business returns and handles 70 percent more telephone calls. Yet since taking control of the House of Representatives in 2010, Republicans have slashed the IRS budget by 18 percent adjusted for inflation. Our illustrious elected representatives like to tell us that they are “punishing” the IRS with such cutbacks, as if the government agency were some living, breathing creature. But who exactly is being punished by such actions? Who is feeling its brunt?

It’s pretty obvious: The taxpayer who wants a simple answer to a simple question is being hurt; the honest citizen who pays his or her taxes, while others cheat because they know that the odds of being caught are shrinking as the enforcement budget shrinks.

It is a matter of simple, incontrovertible math. Every dollar of legally owed taxes that goes uncollected results in one of two things:

  • Higher taxes for those who do pay, or;
  • A higher federal deficit.

I thought conservatives opposed both those things, but apparently not.

Again, none of this is secret. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen has warned Congress repeatedly that such budget cuts would hamper tax collections and end up costing the government far more in unpaid taxes than it would save. He has been joined in those dire warnings by the bipartisan IRS Oversight Board and by the IRS Taxpayer Advocate, both of which were created by earlier Republican Congresses to take the side of citizens against the agency.

Yet even they can’t help but see who is really being harmed by such cutbacks.

“The budget environment of the last five years has brought about a devastating erosion of taxpayer service, harming taxpayers individually and collectively,” Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson concluded in her annual report. Such cutbacks, year after year, are “reshaping U.S. tax administration in ways that are not positive for future tax compliance or for public trust in the fairness of the tax system.”

But Congress doesn’t care. To the contrary, because it provides fuel to the adolescent cries of “Abolish the IRS!”, you get the strong sense that this is exactly the outcome that it hopes to create. This isn’t a mistake; this is a plan coming together.