Jay Bookman

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

What Congress is doing to IRS is the epitome of political dysfunction

It's April 15 -- Tax Day -- and if an American taxpayer calls the IRS today for answers to a question or help on a return, he or she can expect to become extremely frustrated. Wait times will be extraordinarily long, and more than half of the calls into the IRS help center won't be answered at all.

In fact, if someone were set out to create a situation that is guaranteed to make the American public angry at the incompetent, arrogant, unresponsive government agency that is the IRS, this is how you would do it.

More precisely, this is how Republicans in Congress did do it.

Since 2010, they have slashed the IRS budget by 18 percent adjusted for inflation, even as the agency's burdens have increased. Compared to a decade ago, it processes 11 percent more returns from individuals, 18 percent more business returns and handles 70 percent more telephone calls. 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 will feel its brunt?

It's pretty obvious: The taxpayer who wants a simple answer to a simple question. The honest citizen who pays his or her taxes, while others cheat knowing that the odds of being caught are shrinking even as the agency's enforcement budget shrinks. That's who is being damaged here.

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen has warned Congress repeatedly that such budget cuts would reduce tax collections and end up costing the government far more than it would save, and that they would cripple its customer-service efforts. He has been joined in those dire warnings by the bipartisan IRS Oversight Board and by the IRS Taxpayer Advocate, both creations of earlier Republican Congresses intended to take the side of citizens, not the agency. But 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," according to Taxpayer Advocata Nina Olson. In addition, it is "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, you get the strong sense that this is exactly the outcome that it hopes to create.



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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.