Google the term “Internal Revenue Service” or “IRS,” and you will find no shortage of famous quotes from people who are fearful of it. The federal agency has been compared to the Gestapo, the Mafia and the Lord Almighty.
But recent testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee conjured a new IRS image: clueless, bureaucratic, disorganized and technologically incompetent. What started as a Republican probe into former IRS employee Lois Lerner and the treatment of conservative nonprofits seeking tax-exempt status has morphed into something less nefarious and more pathetic: The agency that requires you keep records for years can’t keep theirs for more than six months.
For taxpayers paying even half-attention to the proceedings, it’s infuriating. The IRS wants you to hold onto records for quite a long time. Yet the agency’s inability to produce Lerner’s emails suggests a double standard but more likely, dysfunction.
Chairman Darrell Issa and other Republicans have had a field day, straining to show higher levels of outrage and anger. Too bad it took a political witch hunt aimed at the possibility of White House involvement, which appears to be nil — for Congress to actually show some oversight. Why was it ever regarded as acceptable that such a critical federal agency could have such a woeful computer system with such a modest email capability?
There’s been no evidence of any broad conspiracy — the committee should focus on how the IRS maintained such low standards for technology and wasn’t held accountable. Personal email was never regarded as an official record for anyone employed by the agency, let alone Lerner. And IRS officials were slow to notify Congress that Lerner’s emails were irretrievable.
Democrats are certain to counter that some of the dysfunction is due to a deliberate effort by conservatives to “starve” the IRS. The agency was hit in 2011 with a $600 million cut, and there’s evidence those cutbacks have reduced its ability to enforce tax laws.
President Obama has proposed funding the IRS at 2010 levels, but a House appropriations subcommittee has sought to cut it back further — to roughly 18 percent below 2010 levels when inflation is taken into account, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The agency’s staff has been cut by 11 percent over that same period, and one of the worst hit areas has been training, where the budget has been reduced by 87 percent, the CBPP reports. Such reductions offer a dubious benefit to taxpayers and widen the deficit, as studies have shown every additional dollar spent on IRS enforcement efforts translates into $4 in unpaid taxes collected.
If Republicans want to make political hay, they should give first-year Commissioner John Koskinen toola he needs to fix these problems, then evaluate his performance. It’s fine to yell at him for not informing them about Lerner’s missing emails, but one hopes that the commissioner has bigger fish to fry, like holding the agency to the same record-keeping standards that it holds taxpayers.
Merely vilifying the IRS, railing against Koskinen or implying massive scheming and coverups isn’t really oversight. Congressional investigators ought to be pointing their fingers at themselves and their failure to overhaul an increasingly complicated federal tax code — or their efforts to starve the IRS into paralysis. The Internal Revenue Service may be incompetent and hypocritical, but it’s not the only powerful organization in Washington that looks that way these days.