Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush wants to fix the nation’s tax law. Which is great – it needs a lot of work. But so far, Bush doesn’t seem very interested in fixing something even more important: the IRS. Because even a good tax law will fail when administered by a bad agency.
The IRS is badly broken, not to mention deeply unpopular. That’s not surprising for an agency that exists to separate people from their money. As Edmund Burke observed in 1774, “To tax and to please, no more than to love and to be wise, is not given to men.”
National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson made a similar observation in her most recent annual report to Congress. “The IRS will never be a beloved federal agency, because it is the face of the government’s power to tax and collect,” she said. “But it should be a respected agency.”
Unfortunately, the IRS isn’t respected, either. That’s partly because Republicans have been demonizing it for years (decades, really). Some GOP complaints are opportunistic and self-serving, designed to curry favor with the voters, while others are more legitimate. And a few – like the ongoing controversy over the agency’s targeting of Tea Party groups – manage to be both.
But the real scandal is less lurid and more serious: the abysmal state of taxpayer service.
According to the IRS mission statement, taxpayer service is job one. The agency is committed to providing Americans with “top quality service by helping them understand and meet their tax responsibilities.” Sadly, that’s pretty much an empty promise these days. “Service” might be in the IRS’s name, but it’s absent from its operations.
Lousy customer service is a direct result of inadequate IRS funding. As Olson has said, “the budget environment of the last five years has brought about a devastating erosion of taxpayer service, harming taxpayers individually and collectively.”
Republican congressional leaders deserve the blame for that budgetary failure. When asked, they describe their punitive budget cuts as a form of administrative oversight. “We deliberately lowered the IRS's funding to a level that will make the IRS think twice about what you are doing and why you are doing it, because you don't have a single dime to spare on anything frivolous,” explained Florida Republican Rep. Ander Crenshaw in comments to Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times.
It’s understandable that Republicans are frustrated; the IRS has mishandled its relationship with Congress, ignoring complaints and obfuscating issues whenever possible. The Tea Party scandal is more about ineptitude than corruption, but the IRS has lent credence to the most serious accusations by refusing to be fully transparent and cooperative.
Nonetheless, budget cuts are not the answer. It’s simply crazy to complain about IRS performance and then cut funding even further. Say what you will about waste and mismanagement, at some point, the IRS can’t do more with less. And we are well past that point.
Now that Congress is back from its summer vacation, IRS funding will again be up for debate. And Republicans are already committed to punishing the agency with even more budget cuts.
I’m sure that’s satisfying. If nothing else, it guarantees that IRS-bashing will remain a viable sport on Capitol Hill, since an underfunded agency will continue to underdeliver. But the real victims of budgetary punishment will be taxpayers, not the IRS. More phone calls will go unanswered, fewer letters will be sent, and taxpayers will be left to struggle on their own in meeting their legal obligations.
“Why would anyone want to go this route?” Olson asked in her report last December. That’s a good question – and one that still needs a good answer.