“THE BEATINGS will continue until morale improves,” a famously ironic phrase of unknown origin, aptly describes the Republican House approach to the Internal Revenue Service.
The House has passed a series of sniping, counterproductive measures picking on the IRS. One would limit how it spends the user fees it collects. Another would freeze hiring at the understaffed agency until it obtains certification that no one there has major tax debt. The dumbest would mandate that no one at the IRS could get a bonus until customer service improves.
But who is responsible for the decline of customer service at the IRS? House Republicans. The IRS budget is $500 million below its level in 2010 , the year that Republicans won control of the House. It has been forced to shed 17,000 workers. Meanwhile, its responsibilities have increased. More people are filing taxes. The agency has to administer key parts of the Affordable Care Act. Cyberthreats have skyrocketed, including instances of identity theft.
Hollowing out the IRS has been one of the most foolish policies the GOP majority has pursued, as our columnist Catherine Rampell has illustrated. Tax cheats are encouraged and rewarded. Performing fewer audits cost the government $8 billion in 2015.
Honest people are harmed, too. Several customer service metrics plummeted for a time, until Congress relented a bit and gave the agency a little more money, after which at least telephone service improved for this tax season. But customer service in some other areas is still astonishingly poor. The agency, for example, admits that it is failing to answer a third of the written correspondence it gets quickly enough, even though the goal is to get back to people within 45 days, which is itself an unacceptably long time.
April is synonymous with taxes, so it is little surprise that Republicans chose last month to harry the IRS, among the least-loved parts of government. But the solution to the IRS’s problems is not more punishment, particularly of the sort that is likely to inhibit its ability to hire competent employees. The answer is for lawmakers to give the agency the money it needs to do its job. The country relies on a mostly voluntary system of tax compliance. If respect for and cooperation with that system decline, the government will lose the very revenue Congress expects the IRS to collect — and on which lawmakers’ budgets depend.