GOP gives thumbs down to IRS chief

GOP gives thumbs down to IRS chief

John Koskinen took over the IRS vowing to restore trust, mend fences and win back federal funding.

He hasn’t gotten very far.


More than a year into his tenure, some GOP lawmakers say the commissioner has lost his chance to win them over. And while other Republicans, especially in the Senate, give Koskinen higher marks, frustration with the IRS remains at a high boil.

“The IRS has less credibility now than when he took over,” said Rep. Kevin Brady (Texas), a senior Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee. “And I think we will need a new commissioner before that credibility is regained.”

“He’s not up for this job, which is unfortunate because I thought at the beginning he just might be,” Brady added.

The IRS chief just saw his already pared-down budget slashed $346 million, and could face further cutbacks, with Republicans still angry about his response to congressional investigations into the its improper scrutiny of Tea Party groups.

Koskinen, whose term runs out in November 2017, acknowledged in an interview that his pitch for a funding boost has fallen flat, but he said winning converts on Capitol Hill was always going to be a long haul.

“I didn’t have a timeline,” he said.

The IRS will get $10.9 billion in funding this year, down more than $1 billion from the agency’s high-water mark in 2010.

The commissioner admitted he expected his argument in favor of IRS funding — namely, that budget cuts impede revenue collection at a time when the federal government is running deficits — would have gained more traction by now.

Koskinen, known as a turnaround artist in government and the corporate world, took over the IRS in December 2013, during the fallout from the Tea Party controversy and the agency’s excessive spending on conferences and video spoofs of “Star Trek” and “Gilligan’s Island.”

The IRS ran into more trouble last June when it said it couldn’t find a number of emails from Lois Lerner, the former IRS official at the center of the Tea Party flap. Federal investigators have since worked to retrieve the missing documents.

“We take the issue seriously. It shouldn’t have ever happened, and it shouldn’t happen again,” Koskinen said.

But he added, “To continue to say we can cut a few hundred million dollars because you had a silly conference and used some inappropriate criteria gets you to a point where you’re failing to recognize the real ramifications.”

Lawmakers agree that Koskinen took perhaps the worst job in Washington, and even he has jokingly made that point, telling reporters after his confirmation hearing in 2013 that he had made two columns on a yellow legal pad: one a list of his friends and the other of those who thought taking the job was a good idea.

More than a year later, the commissioner returned to the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday with a more serious message: The funding cuts would cause his agency to falter, just as tax filing season begins.

Koskinen rattled off a host of savings measures the IRS has already implemented, like cutting back on office space, supplies and outside contractors. Next up, Koskinen said, would be “a level of service that none of us believe that taxpayers deserve.”

But that plea landed with a thud before Republicans, who now control both chambers of Congress. They highlighted what they said are problems at the agency with mistakenly paid tax credits, money spent on union activities, bonuses given to staffers with conduct issues, and work on new rules governing the type of tax-exempt groups at the center Tea Party controversy.

Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who voted for Koskinen’s confirmation, said Tuesday he has “a lot of respect for him.”

But Hatch opened the hearing by blasting the agency’s delays in handing over documents tied to the IRS investigation, waving thick piles of documents handed out more than a year and half after the controversy broke. Other Republicans have gone further, accusing Koskinen and the IRS of stonewalling Congress.

Hatch said he doesn’t buy Koskinen’s warnings about a funding crisis.

“They can get by,” he told The Hill. “One thing he has overdone is claim that they can’t.”

Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), one of five Republicans to vote for Koskinen, agreed but added that he sympathized with the task facing the commissioner. “Look, it’s a hard job,” Portman said.

Koskinen has had to soothe the concerns of Republicans lawmakers while also representing the thousands of IRS employees who had nothing to do with the scrutiny of political groups.

“He is doing an outstanding job in representing the agency,” said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, noting that lawmaker questions can be “framed in a way to make him not stand up for the agency and not stand up for the employees.”

“He’s not going to do that. That’s not who he is,” Kelley said.

The IRS workforce the strongest he’s worked with, said Koskinen, whose resume includes stops at other Washington agencies, Freddie Mac and coordinating the federal government’s Y2K response.

Still, he said none of those positions came with the sort of public pressure he’s faced at the IRS. “This is the most clearly the most visible job I’ve ever done,” he said.

And while his lobbying efforts have fallen on deaf ears, Koskinen, who can frequently be seen walking the halls on Capitol Hill, said he isn’t giving up.

He declined to predict when a thaw might occur but implied there’s reason to believe his private discussions with GOP lawmakers are having an impact.

“I’ve enjoyed my conversations with members of Congress,” Koskinen said. “I haven’t enjoyed all the hearings, obviously.”