The voices of Tax Policy Center's researchers and staff
It is a familiar--and sad—Washington story. Start with an agency that deals extensively with the public. The agency stumbles. Congress cuts its budget. The resource-constrained agency does an even-worse job. And the very lawmakers who limited the agency’s ability to do its job express shock and outrage that it…can’t do its job.
Hearings are held. Bureaucratic heads roll. Pols retell the story as just another example of failed government. They even use the problems as an opportunity to cut the agency’s budget more deeply.
That’s exactly what’s been happening to the IRS for years, and now we are seeing the same pattern with the Transportation Security Administration and the ongoing mess with airport security.
Don’t get me wrong, in many ways these agencies have been their own worst enemies. The IRS’s taxpayer services have been notoriously bad for years. Its circle-the-wagons culture of secrecy only damages its relationships with lawmakers and the public, especially at a time when people are increasingly distrustful of government.
The story is similar with TSA: Poorly trained security staff whose attitude towards travelers too-often seems to range from indifferent to surly. Inconsistent rules from airport to airport. Screening equipment that seems to miss true threats even as it registers a seemingly endless cycle of time-consuming false positives. And a stubborn reluctance to use dogs, which are far more efficient than either people or TSA’s equipment, in finding explosives.
Still, these agencies are struggling to do their work under very tough constraints, many created by the very pols who are now happily criticizing them.
The IRS has been Congress’s favorite political piñata for decades. Certain that no administration will use its political chits to defend the agency, lawmakers blast the IRS for either 1) acting like jackbooted thugs or 2) allowing the tax gap to grow unabated by refusing to crack down on tax cheats. Sometimes, the same lawmakers accuse the agency of both failures at the same time.
House Republicans want to impeach IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. Today, a House appropriations subcommittee proposed cutting the agency’s budget by $236 million—down to 2008 levels. The bill would also bar the agency from clarifying what political activity 501(c)(4) tax-exempt organizations could engage in. Lawmakers say the Service should reprogram its remaining funds to focus on customer service, but never say what other activities the IRS should cut back.
Meanwhile, TSA is operating with a 2016 budget that is roughly equal to its 2012 funding level, though the number of airline passengers has increased by 10 percent, from 732 million to more than 800 million. It also must deal with an airline business model increasingly built on baggage fees that encourage travelers to carry on as many bags as they can, all of which must share those endless security lines with people.
Then there is the matter of the airline passenger tax that Congress passed ostensibly to fund the TSA’s security efforts. In reality, the levy never paid for more than about one-quarter of the program. Congress more than doubled the levy a couple of years ago, from $2.50 to $5.60 per trip. But did the extra money go to the TSA? What do you think?
President Obama has repeatedly proposed raising the fee again. But only a small fraction would go to the TSA. The rest, he says, would reduce the deficit.
As you get ready to travel for the Memorial Day weekend and think about having to arrive at the airport hours ahead of your flight, you are right to get angry. But don’t just get mad at the TSA. Get mad at those pols who claim to be outraged at a situation they played a big role in creating.
Posts and comments are solely the opinion of the author and not that of the Tax Policy Center, Urban Institute, or Brookings Institution.
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A long line of travelers wait for the TSA security check point at O'Hare International airport, Monday, May 16, 2016, in Chicago. Already faced with lines that snake through terminals out to the curb, fliers are bracing for long waits at security in the busy months of July and August. Some major airports are currently seeing wait times exceeding 90 minutes at peak hours. (AP Photo/Teresa Crawford)