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Trump struggles to get new IRS team in place

Trump struggles to get new IRS team in place
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's debate showdown Arpaio files libel suit against New York Times IMF's Christine Lagarde delays trip to Middle East MORE has struggled to get his own permanent team in place at the IRS, as the agency works to implement his tax law and deal with technology issues. 

The IRS has had an acting commissioner since November, when Obama appointee John Koskinen’s term ended. Trump nominated Beverly Hills tax attorney Chuck Rettig to the position in February, but the Senate Finance Committee only received his paperwork a little over a week ago — indicating it may be some time before Rettig is on the job.

It is not unusual for the IRS to have acting commissioners for stretches of time, nor is it unusual for the confirmation process to take several months. But the stakes are particularly high given the importance of the tax law to Trump’s presidency and the myriad challenges the agency faces. 

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“There should be a greater sense of urgency here,” said Mark Mazur, director of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center and a former Obama administration Treasury Department official. 

The tax law that Trump signed in December is the signature legislative accomplishment of his presidency, and Republicans are hoping it will yield dividends for their candidates in November’s midterm elections. But for the tax law to be a political asset, they need the rollout to go as smoothly as possible.

The IRS is responsible for carrying out the new law — both in releasing guidance and in updating its systems and forms ahead of next year’s tax filing season. 

Republicans also want to follow their tax code rewrite with an overhaul of the IRS, and it could benefit them to have a Senate-confirmed head of the agency to advise them in that process. A bipartisan bill passed by the House Wednesday calls for the head of the IRS to provide Congress with a report about reorganization by Sept. 30, 2020.

The IRS has also been challenged by technology hiccups and by growing threats from cyber criminals looking to steal taxpayer information.

The IRS suffered a significant setback last week when a hardware issue led to technical difficulties on the tax filing due date. The systems failure led the agency to give taxpayers an extra day to file their returns. 

Mark Everson, who served as IRS commissioner from 2003 to 2007, said the IRS systems issues are now likely to get a hard look, and that Rettig should be involved in those discussions because he would be the person to oversee the improvements if confirmed. 

“There’s more accountability when you have a Senate-confirmed commissioner,” said Everson, who is now vice chairman of alliantgroup.

A 1998 law set IRS commissioners’ terms in scheduled, five-year increments. If there is a gap between Senate-confirmed commissioners, the new commissioner fills the remainder of the five-year term when he or she starts.

Koskinen’s term by law was set to expire in November, and he repeatedly encouraged Congress and the administration to have his successor confirmed before his term ended. 

“Any organization runs better when it has a leader who’s going to be there permanently,” he told The Hill on Friday. 

The Trump administration did not nominate Rettig until about three months after Koskinen left. Since November, David Kautter — who is also Trump’s Senate-confirmed assistant Treasury secretary for tax policy — has been serving as acting commissioner.

A White House official said that the administration worked carefully to find the right person to lead the IRS. 

“The President’s team took as much time as was necessary to pick the best possible nominee from among many qualified candidates,” the official said. “In the meantime, the President named David Kautter to serve as acting IRS Commissioner as soon as Koskinen left. This process is above all meant to ensure the highest caliber of individuals are named for Presidential appointments, and we call on the Senate to swiftly confirm Mr. Rettig.” 

Some see drawbacks to Kautter pulling dual roles at Treasury and the IRS, since his Treasury job is in and of itself important for implementation of the tax law. 

“You sort of have one person dividing their time between two jobs,” said Mazur, who had Kautter’s Treasury job during the Obama administration. “And they’re two full-time jobs.”

Mazur added that there needs to be “someone who can advocate for the IRS full time,” noting that the omnibus spending bill Congress passed last month gives the agency additional funding to implement the tax law but cuts its base funding. 

In recent years, there have often been acting commissioners for periods of time between Senate-confirmed IRS chiefs. 

Koskinen wasn’t confirmed until nearly five months after he was nominated in August 2013. His nomination occurred only several months after a major scandal involving the agency broke over the targeting of political gropus, and an August recess and government shutdown took place in between the time of his nomination and confirmation.

It’s unclear how much longer Rettig’s confirmation process will take. The Finance Committee’s vetting process is bipartisan and involves scrutiny of the nominee’s tax returns and questionnaire. 

Administration officials and GOP senators have frequently complained about the backlog of Trump’s nominees, accusing Democrats of obstructing many of them. 

Lawmakers and tax experts think it’s important for Rettig to start quickly.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchUS to open trade talks with Japan, EU, UK Hatch mocks Warren over DNA test with his own results showing '1/1032 T-Rex' Romney defends Trump’s policies as ‘effective,' disputes he led 'never Trump' movement MORE (R-Utah) said earlier this month that it’s time for Kautter to get “back to his other full-time day job.”

Finance Committee ranking Democrat Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenUS to open trade talks with Japan, EU, UK Poll: Dem incumbent holds 5-point lead in Oregon governor's race Trump, Feinstein feud intensifies over appeals court nominees MORE (Ore.), who hasn’t decided yet how he will vote on Rettig’s nomination, told reporters Thursday that the confirmation process should move “as quickly as is responsible.” 

He also complained in a statement to The Hill Thursday about the lag in the Finance Committee receiving Rettig’s paperwork.

“Mr. Rettig was nominated over two months ago, but our office only received his complete paperwork last week,” he said. “There is no excuse for this kind of delay, particularly when the acting IRS Commissioner is also serving as Trump’s top political operative for tax policy.”

Besides the IRS commissioner, Trump also has yet to have a Senate-confirmed person start in the agency’s only other job that requires such approval: chief counsel. The chief counsel plays an important role in IRS guidance.

Obama appointee William Wilkins left the IRS when Trump took office. Trump just nominated Michael Desmond, a former tax legislative counsel at Treasury, to the position last month, and the Finance Committee had not received all of his paperwork as of Friday afternoon. 

Koskinen praised Kautter, and he added that Rettig and Desmond both have good backgrounds for the jobs to which they’ve been nominated.

“It sounds to me like they’ll be a very good partnership,” he said.