You may have seen media reports today like this one from The New York Times based on the latest annual report from the Internal Revenue Service’s Taxpayer Advocate Service. “Services to taxpayers are likely to drop to their worst levels since 2001,” the Times wrote, adding that according to taxpayer advocate Nina E. Olson, “five years of budget-cutting have ‘brought about a devastating erosion of taxpayer service, harming taxpayers individually and collectively.'”
The Times notes in its article that in the last four years, the IRS budget “has been cut by 17 percent after taking inflation into account.” Note the passive “has been cut” language, which begs the question: Who cut the IRS budget?
The simple answer: Republicans did. And they did it for a reason.
It’s no secret that Republican leaders were furious with the IRS for a number of perceived sins, particularly an IRS investigation into how 501(c)(4) organizations across the ideological spectrum were violating rules regarding political activity, which was widely characterized by the right (and by most mainstream media) as the IRS going exclusively after right-wing groups.
Opposition to the Affordable Care Act also motivated Republicans to cripple the IRS, since the IRS has a key role in enforcing tax provisions in the act. Plus, Republicans are still seething over reports in 2010 of lavish spending on a conference and a Star-Trek-themed training video.
What is clear from a reading of the 2015 financial services and general government appropriations bill is that the House Republicans were far more interested in punishing the IRS for what it believed it was doing wrong than to properly equip the IRS for the work it is supposed to do. The portion of the House Appropriations Committee bill report dealing with the IRS starts off with hostile language: “The Committee remains troubled by the activities of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) including the inappropriate singling out of certain tax-exempt groups based on their political beliefs, wasteful spending on conferences and videos, and providing bonuses to staff without evaluating their conduct or tax compliance.”
Republicans are well aware of the consequences of their actions. Olson herself warned Congress of the consequences, as have IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, who last month called the Republican funding proposal for the IRS a “tax cut to tax cheats.”
But while tax cheats are more likely to get a holiday, the rest of us will be punished. “Potentially millions of taxpayers will not be able to reach the IRS when they need to, and their written communications will go unanswered or unaddressed,” Olson said in her report. “Taxpayers will not get their math error notices corrected or penalties abated, leading to incorrect assessments and expensive downstream dispute resolution activities, including audit reconsideration, appeals, and litigation.”
Olson said “this denial must stop” with regard to the impact of budget cuts at the IRS. There is something else that has to stop as well: the refusal to call out the Republicans who are responsible, and will continue to make the problem worse as long as they remain in control of Congress.