Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Our country is being governed by thrill-seeking adolescents

I continue to be amazed at the modern Republican Party's adolescent, "if-it-feels-good,-do-it" approach to the serious business of governance.

Last year, for example, the inspector general for the IRS warned that consistent funding cuts in the agency's budget -- reductions of $1.2 billion over a five-year period in which its workload had grown significantly -- had made the agency increasingly vulnerable to cyberattack. Those budget cuts were also harming its ability to detect fraudulent returns from prisoners, illegal immigrants, etc., and well as its capacity to prevent billions of dollars in fraud in child-care and earned-income tax credits.

How did House Republicans respond to such warnings? They decided that the fun thing to do would be to cut the IRS budget for 2015 by another $354 million. It just felt so good doing it.

And you know how such things go. If something feels good, you just want to do it again, only this time bigger and better!

This week -- two weeks after news broke that Russian hackers had stolen personal information on more than 100,000 taxpayers from IRS computers, then used that data to steal $50 million in fraudulent refunds -- the House Appropriations Committee voted to cut the IRS budget for 2016 by an additional $838 million, more than twice the budget reduction of a year earlier.

It's downright amazing. In 2013 alone, the IRS paid out $5.8 billion in false refunds that it lacked the manpower and technology to detect. In 2012 alone, it estimated taxes that were owed but unpaid at $450 billion, which increases the financial burden on those taxpayers honest enough to pay what they owe. Every dollar that the IRS spends on enforcement produces an additional six to seven dollars in revenue, thus reducing the federal deficit.

Congress knows all that, or ought to know. As IRS director John Koskinen told Congress recently, "In regard to software, we're still have applications we were running when John F. Kennedy was president."

"And we continue to use COBOL programming language," Koskinen warned. "COBOL was considered outdated back when I served as chairman of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion, and it is extremely difficult to find IT experts who are versed in this language."

And while the agency does have some more up-to-date computers, they run on Windows XP, an 20th century operating system so archaic that Microsoft announced last year that it no longer supports it, which also means that it no longer provides security updates for the software.

But we're getting to the best part here:

The IRS inspector general has warned repeatedly about the impact of continued budget cuts. The IRS taxpayer advocate has warned repeatedly that the only people hurt by such reductions are the taxpayers. The IRS oversight board, an independent panel of experts created by Congress, has also warned repeatedly about the impact of continued cuts and last year recommended a $2.3 billion INCREASE in its budget.

However, the oversight board did not make such recommendations for 2016. As its website helpfully explains:

"The IRS Oversight Board does not currently have enough members confirmed by the U.S. Senate to make up a quorum and as a result has suspended operations."

After all those warnings, and after all the cutbacks that were imposed despite those warnings, here's how Sen. Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, responded to the news that the warnings had come true and taxpayers' data had been accessed by hackers:

“That the IRS — home to highly sensitive information on every single American and every single company doing business here at home — was vulnerable to this attack is simply unacceptable. What’s more, this agency has been repeatedly warned by top government watchdogs that its data security systems are inadequate against the growing threat of international hackers and data thieves.”

I mean, the mind just boggles.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.