IRS: Inexcusably rotten service

Warning: Taxpayers should expect the worst service on record from the Internal Revenue Service this filing season. A new report from the agency’s Taxpayer Advocate predicts that 57 percent of the taxpayers calling for help won’t get through to a live “assistor.” Those who actually manage to get through will likely wait on hold for an agonizing 30 minutes. Taxpayers contacting the agency by mail won’t fare much better—about half of the correspondence won’t be processed within 45 days of receipt.

Officials blame recent budget cuts for the problem, but the fact is that IRS service has been eroding for years. In FY 2005, the agency answered 83 percent of calls, a level that dropped to 64 percent last year.

{mosads}The IRS budget has indeed been reduced, most recently by 3 percent for 2015—and for good reason. The agency certainly hasn’t been efficient with its resources. For example, there were 225 employee conferences between 2010 and 2012 (an average of more than one conference every 5 days) at a total cost of $49 million, according to a report by J. Russell George, the Treasury Department Inspector General for Tax Administration. That $49 million is the equivalent to more than 14 percent of the most recent budget reduction. It is hard to imagine why so many conferences are necessary, and American taxpayers have every right to be concerned and irritated by the decision to incur such a large expense on them.

Agency resources are also stretched by the increasing (and absurd) complexity of the tax code, made worse by Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank financial regulation statute. Indeed, more than half of taxpayers now rely on professional tax return preparers to get through the filing ordeal. The remedy is not more money for the IRS. The remedy is a simplified tax regime.

Worst of all, the agency carried out illegal and abusive actions toward conservative nonprofit groups seeking non-taxable status. IRS officials have also stonewalled Congress by refusing to turn over emails related to the politically motivated mistreatment. Those responsible for the violations should be made to answer for their actions, but in the meantime, Congress is entirely justified in making budget cuts. When officials fail to institute reforms after egregious violations of the law, their agency loses credibility.

Blaming a miserly Congress is a favorite tactic among poorly performing government agencies, and now they are harming taxpayers in their pursuit of a bigger budget. Lawmakers and the American people should not be fooled by the IRS’ attempt to blame Congress for the lousy performance, and they most certainly have a right to expect better service in return for their hard-earned tax dollars.

Quarles is currently a member of the Young Leaders program at The Heritage Foundation.

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