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IRS Unable to Provide Necessary Customer Service; Thune Snickers Vindictively

Need help figuring out your 2014 federal tax return? Don't count on the Internal Revenue Service. The National Taxpayer Advocate's latest report to Congress says the IRS lacks the staff and funding to serve taxpayers:

  1. The IRS will be able to answer only 50% of the 100 million calls it will receive from taxpayers this fiscal year.
  2. Callers will often wait 30 minutes to speak to an IRS rep.
  3. In 2004, the IRS answered 87% of its calls, with an average hold time of 2.5 minutes.
  4. Last year, the IRS dropped tax prep service "for hundreds of thousands of low income, elderly, and disabled taxpayers who sought assistance."
  5. Voluntary and timely tax payment provides 98% of the federal government's revenue. Providing good customer service collects revenue far more efficiently than enforcement actions against taxpayers who don't file correctly or at all.
  6. Since FY2010, Congress has reduced the IRS budget 9.9% in straight dollars and 17.7% in inflation-adjusted dollars.
  7. Since FY2010, budget cuts have caused the IRS to cut workforce by 12.3%.
  8. Since FY2010, the IRS has cut its training budget by 87%. In a complicated field where rules and procedures change every year, the amount available to spend on training for each employee (FTE) has dropped in five years from $1,774 to $339.
  9. The IRS managed to answer a bit more its mail on time last year than the year before, but it still failed to process 51% of adjustments (i.e., "You owe us" or "We owe you") correspondence in its standard 45-day timeframe.

That lack of customer service is just one of multiple serious problems the National Taxpayer Advocate's office identifies at the IRS. We could ask for no better example of how smart government sometimes means bigger government: if we want more taxpayers to get answers to tax questions in less time, we need more staff with more training on more phones.

But Senator John Thune appears to prefer self-destructive failure:

Republicans who now control Congress and who led the effort to reduce the IRS budget don't seem too concerned about the agencies woes. It goes back to GOP charges that the agency targeted conservative groups seeking tax exempt status for extra scrutiny.

Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota: "I don't think that based on the IRS' record over the last couple of years that there's a whole lot of sympathy for the complaints that they're now making about not having enough funding. Obviously they have a job to do, it's an important job we want to make sure they have the resources to do that job to collect the taxes but wasting resources targeting conservative groups and other things like that is obviously something that we would take great issue with" [Brian Naylor, "IRS Budget Cuts May Make for an Unpleasant Tax Filing Season," NPR: Morning Edition, 2015.01.20].

The Cincinnati IRS office oversteps its bounds, and Senator Thune decides to strangle the entire IRS and leave taxpayers at sea. That makes about as much sense as a teacher reacting to one student scribbling on a desk by taking away everyone's writing utensils and then flunking the kids for not finishing their penmanship assignments. It's almost as if Senator Thune doesn't want us to submit our homework—er, taxes (ah ha! so that's his game!).

The Internal Revenue Service is not some partisan enemy. It is an essential arm of government, without which the ship of state sinks. Senator Thune and Congress can impose the necessary oversight on the IRS and still provide the resources to help tens of millions of taxpayers file their taxes correctly and on time.


  1. Tim 2015.01.20

    Republican version of a tax cut for the middle class.

  2. Bill Dithmer 2015.01.20

    Spoiled little tit sucker. John being John.

    The Blindman

  3. Kenny Weiland 2015.01.20

    SD again suffers as the results of their actions by voting him into office. So many South Dakotans love tax time because they know they will have a little extra money to spend. Their return will just take a few weeks longer. This is a minor issue. Wait until the flood comes. The GOP agenda scares me

  4. SDBlue 2015.01.20

    Noem was also complaining about the IRS on her Facebook page a few days ago. Republicans sure love to slash budgets and then bitch when the agency they defunded doesn't work. It is akin to slashing the budget of your local fire department and then bitching when your house burns to the ground.

  5. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.01.20

    Kenny points out an important flip side to the problem Tim and I see. Underfunding the IRS may not simply reduce revenue by making it harder for people to file and pay their taxes properly. It also makes it harder for folks eligible for refunds and Earned Income Tax Credits to get all the money that is rightfully theirs. Essentially, underfunding the IRS could cause lots of Americans to end up paying more taxes than necessary.

    Of course, that problem will only hit low-income Americans, not the rich corporations who can always afford accountants and lawyers to help them squeeze every drop from tax loopholes.

  6. mike from iowa 2015.01.20

    Under dumb ass dubya the IRS targeted low and middle income earners for audits. It isn't like wingnuts haven't used gubmint agencies to do their dirty work.

  7. Wayne B. 2015.01.20

    Precursor to a simplified tax code?

  8. Michael Wyland 2015.01.20

    I have written more than 20 articles on the IRS scandal for The Nonprofit Quarterly (NPQ) and presented a paper on the topic at the national ARNOVA Conference in November, 2014. That paper is posted on my firm's web site.

    There is no doubt, based on public records, that there is an IRS scandal, that it involved the IRS headquarters in DC from the first month or two (Feb. 2010), and that it also involved contact from Lois Lerner to both the FEC and Justice Department.

    Yes, the Congressional Republicans can be shrill and act like spoiled children. After all, they're politicians . However, the condescending and contemptuous attitude of IRS Commissioner John Koskinen in his Congressional testimony harms the IRS as well. More importantly, the IRS's foot-dragging on complying with subpoenas has further enraged investigators. In fact, some of the most important recent discoveries about the IRS scandal were made as a result of FOIA requests by nonprofits to the FEC and Justice, not through testimony or document production by the IRS.

  9. Joan Williams 2015.01.20

    In a recent dealing with the IRS, after 6 months waiting for a response I tried to call. After 57 minutes on hold someone finally came back and said to check again in a month. That time nobody answered the phone. After a couple more unanswered calls I called Senator Johnson's office. They made the call and then I got some response. But 18 months to get something resolved seems out of line. Then they sent me a survey asking me to rate my recent experience.

  10. Loren 2015.01.20

    Thune never has been more than a figurehead! He was elected with the help of outside money/influence and has done what he has been told ever since! Sure takes a pretty picture, tho!

  11. MC 2015.01.20

    We could set up the Fair Tax system then retool the IRS.

  12. mike from iowa 2015.01.20

    wingnuts in Washington,DC use subpoenas to order pizza and wingnuts in South Dakota wouldn't know what a subpoena was if their lives depended on it. Pretty pathetic party panzies.

  13. Jaka 2015.01.20

    Mr Wylund---if only a scandal like that could be as easily swept away as the EB-5 scandal in South Dakota, eh?

  14. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.01.20

    Mr. Wyland, I'm trying to figure out the relevance of your statement. We need to collect taxes and deliver refunds. We need to provide taxpayers with accessible, reliable information to help them pay and collect.

    To draw an analogy, is the proper response to allegations of police misuse of power in Ferguson to cut funding for training, fire police officers, and send police out on fewer patrols?

  15. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.01.20

    Joan, 18 months is nuts, especially considering that it was probably an issue that one well-trained staffer ccould have worked out with you in a week, including time for you to find any necessary documents. You, like the vast majority of folks, just want to make sure you've paid all your taxes and not one penny more and not have to stress out about it for the rest of the year. To make sure that happens, we need a robust and robustly overseen IRS.

  16. MC 2015.01.20

    Cory, I think you may have hit the crux of the problem with our government. The IRS, FDA, FCC, FBI, CIA and whole alphabet soup of federal agencies and in some case congress itself have been running too long with out oversight.

    Don't go blaming Republicans and I won't blame the Democrats. We (as in all of us) share the blame for this debacle. It is going to be up to us (as in all of us) to fix it.

  17. Joan Brown 2015.01.20

    Thune should laugh at himself. Anytime that I have contacted him or Noem, I never get a timely response. Whenever I contacted former Senator Johnson or Daschle I always had prompt answers.

  18. larry kurtz 2015.01.20

    Thune is a sleaze ball who went to Congress as one of the least wealthy members and is now raking in the dough: why anyone takes him seriously remains a mystery.

  19. rollin potter 2015.01.20

    Welcome to south Dakota you suckers that keep voting for him!!!!!

  20. Michael Wyland 2015.01.20

    Mr. Heidelberger:

    Two relevance points: 1) the IRS scandal was and is about far more than "The Cincinnati IRS office oversteps its bounds"; and 2) the IRS, and its Commissioner in particular, has done much to aggravate and prolong the difficulties that it faces now.

    As a conservative commentator noted, either the Commissioner or the President could have publicly stated, in effect, that their job would be to marshal resources to minimize the harmful effects of budget shortfalls on taxpayer customer service. This has not happened.

    Going further, one approach the Commissioner and/or the President could take is one of expediting compliance with existing Congressional subpoenas and calling for quick and public investigative reports from the Treasury Inspector General (TIGTA) and the FBI, both of which are also investigating aspects of the scandal.

    Instead, some (like Americans for Tax Reform, or ATR) have referred to the IRS's strategy as a "Washington Monument" strategy seeking to maximize visible discomfort for the public as a way to gain political support for increased resources.

    The other context/subtext/pretext for the difficulties at the IRS is the administration of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). In the past, the Administration has bypassed the budget restrictions on the IRS by having HHS pay the costs associated with hiring 800 staff to work on ACA-related tasks. This approach has become unworkable because Congressional Republicans became aware of it and have done their best to put a stop to it. In addition, the initial period of collecting taxes (like the medical device tax and the surtax on high-end investment transactions) without having to make expenditures is ending as the time nears for the government and insurance companies to assess whether, and to what extent, Obamacare's "risk corridors" (potential government subsidies built into the ACA to replace possible insurance company losses) will need to be financed.

  21. Moses 2015.01.21

    Thune can just get a camera and a basketball, are those tax deductible.

  22. mike from iowa 2015.01.21

    The fauxknee outrage wingnuts spout about these phony,unsubstantiated scandals just breaks my heart. NOT!

    I imagine the koch bros tell Thune they want more tax breaks so wingnuts cut services for the poor to give the koch bros the spoils of buying elections.

  23. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.01.21

    MC, I will endeavor not to let my partisan rancor blind me to practical solutions. Now, what parts of that alphabet soup could we combine and still provide the necessary citizen service taxpayers deserve?

  24. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.01.21

    Mr. Wyland: blah, blah, blah. How do we answer taxpayers' questions right now? I hear there's fraud and abuse in Medicaid, Medicare, and food stamps, so I suppose we should just suspend those programs and fire their staffs, too?

  25. Michael Wyland 2015.01.21

    Mr. Heildeberger:

    As they say in the British House of Commons, "I refer the gentleman to the response I made some moments ago" and hereby yield the floor. Thank you for the opportunity to explore the issue with you and your readers.

  26. MC 2015.01.21

    Cory, there is no quick fix! you know this, and I know this. Right now, we are just going to have to suffer through it.

    Then we need to get on our delegation in Washington, and make them aware of the situation. not just once or twice but several times a day.

  27. mike from iowa 2015.01.21

    Lying wingnuts toss out any excuse they think will stick so they can eliminate gubmint so the koch bros can keep all their money and everyone else's as well. Think where this country could have been if taxes were allowed to be raised to pay for wingnuts trillions in debt and deficits,instead of having to borrow more and more just to pay the interest.

  28. Les 2015.01.21

    """Mr. Wyland: blah, blah, blah. How do we answer taxpayers' questions right now? """. That would seem to be a presidential order to me, Cory!

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