Tax filing season is underway, and the hope is that more than 40 percent of taxpayers calling the IRS for help filing their taxes get through to a customer service representative — and after waiting less than 30 minutes.
That may seem like a low bar, but those benchmarks would exceed the IRS’ customer service performance during last year’s tax filing season.
According to the Government Accountability Office, just 38.1 percent of callers got through in 2015, and they waited an average of 30 minutes, 30 seconds. Compared with 2010, the percentage of callers getting through was down by nearly half, and the average wait time was nearly three times as long.
The IRS posted such poor performance statistics even as fewer people called the federal agency for help. The number of callers fell 6 percent between 2010 and 2015 — to 51.1 million from 54.3 million — as more customer service moved online or into written form.
Why such laggard service? As the IRS’ responsibilities — and corresponding customer service calls — became more complicated with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and a rise in identity theft cases, the tax-collecting agency had fewer resources to devote to helping customers and collecting the revenue the federal government needs to operate.
The IRS’ total budget fell 10 percent between 2010 and 2015 as Republicans in Congress tried to carry out major cuts — and succeeded — following high-profile IRS missteps such as uneven scrutiny of tea party groups seeking tax-exempt status and excessive spending on conferences.
While the IRS needed to clean up its act, the more significant effect of Congress’ budget cuts was on the quality of customer service. Between 2010 and 2015, the number of staff members devoted to customer assistance dropped 18.6 percent — to 11,391 from 13,995. Further, the number of staffers helping out customers via phone dropped 33.6 percent in that period, according to the Government Accountability Office.
It’s no wonder IRS customer service reached new lows as members of Congress tried to hobble the agency responsible for collecting the money needed to pay the bills.
Congressional Republicans sought further cuts to the IRS budget for the 2016 filing year, but the omnibus budget bill that passed Congress in December included a $290 million — or 3 percent — increase for the agency. Congress required that the additional funds go to taxpayer assistance and no other IRS line item.
That allocation addresses one of the IRS’ budget-induced shortcomings, but not another: tax enforcement. Audit levels last year — just like customer service levels — sank to new lows as the agency’s enforcement budget and the ranks of enforcement personnel continued to shrink.
IRS personnel last year audited 1.2 million individual tax returns, a 22.3 percent drop from 2010. The result was that the agency’s collections from audits also dropped to new lows — well below levels from a decade ago.
Audits and other enforcement measures make no one happy, but they do help the federal government collect revenue it wouldn’t otherwise collect. That’s money the U.S. doesn’t have to borrow. Every dollar the U.S. has to borrow, of course, is a dollar added to the federal deficit and the federal government’s nearly $19 trillion debt.
But the IRS had 20 percent fewer enforcement personnel last year than it had in 2010. An enforcement staff that’s 20 percent smaller can’t possibly collect the same amount of revenue as a more robust staff whose activity sends the message that tax fraud and tax evasion won’t be tolerated.
Just $1 more devoted to tax enforcement yields $6 more in revenue, according to the Treasury Department. That means the IRS, without changing any part of the current tax code or any part of the federal budget, can play a major part in setting the federal government on a more fiscally sustainable path.
If only a Republican Congress would allow it.