The voices of Tax Policy Center's researchers and staff
The massive 2015 spending bill that President Obama is likely to sign this week continues an ongoing effort to trash the Internal Revenue Service. It is a cynical recipe for a self-fulfilling disaster: Give the agency more and more work. Cut its budget. Blame it for failing to do its job. Repeat.
House GOP Appropriators bragged that this year’s IRS budget is the lowest since 2008. But it is actually worse than that. In inflation adjusted dollars, the agency’s funding is lower than it has been since 1998, when Buffy was still slaying vampires and people were listening to Aerosmith before it was nostalgic.
For context, in 1998, taxpayers filed about 125 million individual returns. Last year, the agency had to process 145 million.
Technology has made some of that work easier—more than 90 percent of individual returns are now filed electronically, vastly reducing the amount of work for IRS staffers. But technology has also forced the agency to respond to growing numbers of hackers and identity thieves.
And while processing returns may be easier, taxpayers must sort through increasingly complex rules—most as result of laws passed by the same Congress that cuts the IRS budget. The agency ought to be providing more assistance and education to help them but, thanks to those budget reductions, it is providing less.
According to the Government Accountability Office, IRS has cut staff by 9 percent since 2009. Examinations of business returns dropped from 50 percent to one-third. In 2014, callers waited twice as long for an IRS response than they did in 2009, and fewer said they received service. The IRS has cut training costs by more than 80 percent. The agency estimates its audit rate for partnerships and other pass-through business--where fraud and error are rampant--was 0.5 percent in 2011.
Now the IRS faces the unenviable task of trying to track who has health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, and calculate penalties for those who do not. Worse, it must sort out whether people received the right subsidies, and, if they did not, it must correct them.
Many tax administration experts have long feared the agency will be unable to get this right. And lower funding will make the task even more difficult. That, of course, is exactly what many anti-ACA lawmakers have in mind.
On the business side, the agency has been overwhelmed by aggressive planning and the complexity of the law itself. The agency often lets such tactics pass, simply because it knows it will be hopelessly outgunned in a prolonged dispute.
The financial pressures on the IRS, and their consequences, should be a surprise to no one. The government is loaded with IRS watchdogs and nearly all of them have made the same predictions: Cutting the IRS budget will be bad for taxpayers and bad for the fisc.
This is what the IRS Oversight Board said last May (before the agency budget was cut yet again):
“If funding levels remain at the amounts seen in recent years and legislators continue to add complexity and unfunded statutory changes to the tax code, taxpayers will be harmed by additional cuts to services….The stability of our nation’s tax system will also be at risk if enforcement plummets and the tax gap grows.”
Many of IRS’ recent political problems are self-inflicted: The mess it made of its review of political organizations applying for tax-exempt status, the stupid junkets, and its self-destructive obsession with secrecy (someday it will learn that it is not helpful to hide its own failings behind the cloak of protecting taxpayers).
And blindly throwing money at a problem is almost never the right solution. The agency can be run more efficiently. But to be honest, the IRS budget cuts are about none of that.
They are driven by lawmakers who have made the IRS a symbol of all they hate about government and those who don’t have the courage to defend an unpopular agency. They are all happy to attack the IRS for harboring jackbooted thugs even as they criticize it for allowing the tax gap to grow. But they won’t give it the resources it needs to do its job.
Posts and comments are solely the opinion of the author and not that of the Tax Policy Center, Urban Institute, or Brookings Institution.