GAO: IRS can make improvements without new funding

The Internal Revenue Service, facing a years-long funding crunch, has ways besides more money to offer better services, the Government Accountability Office said Monday.

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The GAO noted in its new report that IRS funding has dipped below 2009 levels, and that the agency has absorbed roughly $900 million in cuts since 2010.

The agency has also shed around 8,000 full-time employees since 2009, as the IRS has offered either pared back or uneven services to taxpayers and in enforcing tax collection.

But the GAO, Congress’s investigative arm, also says that the IRS can do more within its current funding constraints — including spelling out more clearly the agency’s goals for answering taxpayer questions on the phone, such as appropriate wait times.

“Additional funding is not the only solution,” the report said.

The GAO also suggested the IRS more deeply examine its enforcement programs, to see which bring back the most revenues per dollar spent, and craft a long-term strategic plan for online services.

John Koskinen, the IRS commissioner, has made clear that he thinks the agency needs a funding boost, noting that “every dollar invested in IRS enforcement provides a strong return on investment in revenue collection.”

But Republicans on Capitol Hill have scoffed at that idea, after the IRS acknowledged last year that it improperly scrutinized Tea Party groups.

Koskinen has also said that the IRS is stretching dollars in any way it can, to beef up enforcement and offer better services to taxpayers.

The GAO report found that the IRS is doing better than it expected on answering phone calls, answering about two-thirds of the calls of people seeking live assistance through March 15 at an average wait time of about 17 minutes.

Koskinen has chalked that up to a lack of major tax changes last year, but also said that he expected the final figure to be closer to 60 percent than 70 percent.

IRS funding cuts have also forced the agency to put two major information technology projects on hold, at a time Koskinen has said that the IRS needs major improvements to its systems.