How not to fix the IRS

Simply bashing the IRS for its faults won’t help fix a troubled and often badly-managed agency, Gleckman argues.

Al Behrman/AP
Tea party activists demonstrate on Fountain Square before marching to the John Weld Peck Federal Building in Cincinnati, Ohio, to protest against the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS is badly managed, but it's also critically understaffed. Criticizing it nonstop will not help the IRS fix its problems, Gleckman says.

House Republicans have decided to make the IRS their summer piñata. Its leadership says it will bring a series of anti-IRS proposals to the floor later this month. And an appropriations subcommittee’s spending bill would slash the agency’s budget by $3 billion, 24 percent below levels Congress approved in March. If the plan is to score political points by hamstringing the agency’s ability to do its job, starving the beast this way makes perfect sense. But if you are interested in improving the way the IRS works, it is foolish and counter-productive.

This IRS-bashing is hardly surprising—or unexpected– given the agency’s bungled management of its tax-exempt entities office and its tone-deaf Star Trek videos. And, of course, few Democrats will leap to the defense of what is probably the government’s least popular agency.

Forgive me, but let’s try to apply a dash of common sense to the agency’s problems. After months of looking, the IRS’ most vocal critics have found no evidence that its poor processing of requests by political organizations seeking tax-exempt status was politically-motivated.

It was, however, real. And its cause seems to be a staff that suffered from low skills, poor training, low morale, a shortage of resources, and bad management. It is hard to see how cutting an organization’s budget by one-third will fix any of these problems.

To be even more specific:  Tea Party and other conservatives groups had two main objections to the way they were treated by the IRS: They were subjected to lots of intrusive questions and the applications process took too long.

The agency has stopped asking the questions and new management wants to speed up the process. But deep budget cuts in a labor-intensive organization won’t increase efficiency. They will almost certainly slow down IRS processing of something—if not requests for tax-exempt status, then something else.

Then, there is the matter of the Affordable Care Act. House Republicans have made no secret of their desire to repeal the law (they have voted to do so 38 times). Failing that, they’ve loaded the IRS spending bill with riders aimed at barring the agency from using money to implement key provisions of the law, including the individual mandate.

There is nothing new, of course, about Congress trying to legislate through riders to spending bills. Democrats did it for years when Republicans were in the White House. But it is almost always a bad idea.

This IRS budget isn’t going to pass Congress. Everyone involved in this little comedy knows that. But it will leave the agency facing months more uncertainty at the very time when it needs solid management and good, highly-motivated staffers.

The bottom line is simple: Congress gives the IRS more and more to do, whether it’s running much of the nation’s social safety net, subsidizing favored industries, or having to enforce increasingly complex laws. The agency has been short-staffed for years. Reducing funding to 2001 levels, as this bill does, would only make matters worse.

Many lawmakers who will vote to cut funding will soon turn around and blast the agency for aiding and abetting the tax gap by not enforcing the law. Then, they’ll accuse the agency of sending jack-booted thugs after taxpayers who don’t pay what they owe.

Even if you believe in a government limited to, say, national defense, homeland security, and farm subsidies, you still need to levy taxes and you still need someone to collect them. If you grouse about the “47 percent,” and want everyone to contribute, you need to collect taxes from a lot of households. And you want to do it as efficiently as possible.

The IRS can’t win, even when it is doing a pretty good job. And there is no doubt that these days it is not doing a great job and many of its problems are of its own making. The nation’s tax collector needs repairs. But a summer of IRS-bashing won’t fix a troubled and often badly-managed agency.

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