Republicans made it clear that the cuts to the IRS were in response to the agency's recent actions. The GOP has a long laundry list of complaints: the payment of IRS bonuses, the failure to accurately and timely answer questions about the exempt organization scandal, old training videos, and the cost of Obamacare implementation. With the exception of the last item, the Service has been tone-deaf in its response to Republicans. In fact, one might even call some of its vague and misleading answers outright defiance of the House majority. That's an odd strategy for an agency crying out for more resources to take.
IRS Commissioner John Koskinen has made it clear that taxpayers and practitioners will suffer just as much as IRS employees if these cuts come to pass. He and other officials have pointed to the fact that IRS telephone responsiveness might drop to 53 percent this year. Far from building support on Capitol Hill or resonating with House members, Koskinen's frequent claims of poverty seem to only provoke GOP lawmakers. "They tell me they're outraged they can only answer 53 percent of the calls; I tell them I'm outraged they just paid [millions] in bonuses to people, some of them who owe back taxes -- get your priorities right," Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla., said.
The Republican Party has had an axe to grind with the IRS for years. From the moment President Obama was elected in 2008, the GOP started crying foul on some of the agency's practices. The EO scandal seemed to confirm the party's worst fears about the IRS (and, in its more paranoid moments, the extent of White House involvement in day-to-day executive administration). Ever since then, Republicans have been eager to call out every IRS misstep, from the infamous Star Trek videos to lavish conferences. The IRS's defenders have been quick to say that Republicans have politicized the agency's budget, which will harm the tax system. To some Democrats, IRS officials, and NTEU members, the GOP has simply been shrill and vindictive, turning slight missteps into months-long scandals.
Those who criticize the GOP's handling of the various IRS scandals have a point. But lost in their reflexive defense of the Service are valid Republican complaints about the IRS's lack of transparency and responsiveness. For whatever reason, the Service decided that it wouldn't cooperate with Republicans over the scandal. Maybe it thought the GOP wouldn't be reasonable. Maybe it thought giving clear answers and admitting obvious wrongdoing would be more damaging to its prospects than being opaque and evasive. Well, it was wrong -- both in hindsight, given the budget passed over the weekend, and at the time, given the agency's duty to be nonpartisan.
From certain vantage points, it seems that the IRS doubled down on thumbing its nose at Republicans over the last two years, perhaps with the idea that Senate Democrats and the president would protect it (and anyone who says this is an unfair characterization hasn't been reading Lois Lerner's e-mails). They didn't. The IRS has no political allies. If it wants to be effective, it has to rebuild its relationship with the majority party on Capitol Hill. It needs to be more open and cooperative with Republicans, and it has to be able to convince at least the more reasonable right-of-center lawmakers that it can perform its functions as tax administrator in an unbiased manner. The agency has woefully failed at that task over the last six years and it needs to make that its top priority during the next Congress.