Column, 520 words

A Tax Cut for Tax Cheats

Spending a dollar on the IRS adds $255 to the federal budget.

Bob Lord

If the most frequently dialed federal agency in America can’t even answer two-thirds of the millions of phone calls it gets, should the government cut its budget?

Congress thinks so. That agency is the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). And lawmakers have hacked at its budget yet again.

Worse still, those cuts will cost more money than they’ll save. They’re basically “a tax cut to tax cheats,” said IRS commissioner John Koskinen.

Regardless of your feelings about the IRS, Koskinen is right.

The government has slashed the enforcement portion of the IRS budget by nearly 20 percent over the last five years. That’s forcing the IRS to shrink the number of employees working on enforcement by 15 percent.

Talk about being penny-wise and pound-foolish. For every dollar the IRS spent in 2013, it collected $255, according to National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson.

IRS Budget Cuts

Tax Credits/Flickr

Imagine that someone told a CEO that a given department was bringing in hundreds of dollars to his company for every dollar it spent. “It is difficult to see how the CEO would keep his job if he chose not to provide the department with the funding it needed,” Olson said.

Yet, she noted, “that is essentially what has been happening with respect to IRS funding.” Congress has slashed the IRS budget four times in five years. And those cuts are feeding the budget deficit that conservatives supposedly fret about.

It’s all about political expedience. Remember when the IRS faced accusations of singling out conservative nonprofits for tax scrutiny? Along with other experts, I predicted that it would spur further IRS budget cuts. Now Republican lawmakers are taking their revenge.

It’s a vicious cycle. Critics attack the IRS for making mistakes, darkening the public’s view of it. That gives political opportunists a chance to lobby successfully for cuts. A smaller budget virtually guarantees future mistakes by a cash-strapped agency.

Taxpayer services are underfunded too. The IRS now is unlikely to answer even half the phone calls it gets from taxpayers, Olson says. The average wait time is 30 minutes.

So another vicious cycle plays out as taxpayers who try to do the right thing get frustrated. Evasion rates rise. Pressure on the IRS enforcement team mounts.

On top of all that, taxpayers and collectors alike are coping with a tax code that’s more complex than ever. The IRS is responsible for implementing about 40 new provisions of the Affordable Care Act alone, for example.

And it could get more absurd.

The Republican Party is fundraising on the promise of abolishing the IRS altogether, as Citizens for Tax Justice reports. What happens when a country can’t collect taxes?

“Italy and Greece have been stuck in vicious cycles in which tax evasion runs rampant,” Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell recently wrote. So politicians “raise tax rates to extract more money from the few law-abiding saps still out there, encouraging people to hide economic activity from even higher tax rates, and so on.”

That kind of dysfunction hurts honest taxpayers and bankrupts governments.

Let’s change course before it’s too late.

Bob Lord, a veteran tax lawyer, practices and blogs in Phoenix, Arizona. He is an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow.
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