IRS’ Decline is Setting Off Alarms

In a new piece for ProPublica, Paul Kiel and Jesse Eisinger break down the IRS' decline in resources and, relatedly, capabilities in the past decade, with the agency having been a repeated political target.

Kiel and Eisinger note specific examples of the turnover caused by the incessant budgeting instability within the IRS, highlighting early retirements, decreasing budgets, and a general decrease in the agency's bandwidth.

"Had the billions in budget reductions occurred all at once, with tens of thousands of auditors, collectors and customer service representatives streaming out of government buildings in a single day, the collapse of the IRS might have gotten more attention," the authors write. "But there have been no mass layoffs or dramatic announcements.

Instead, it’s taken eight years to bring the agency that funds the government this low. Over time, the IRS has slowly transformed, one employee departure at a time."


Tom Burger, Executive Director of the Professional Managers Association (PMA), a professional association which represents non-unionized managers and employees within the IRS, sounded similar alarm bells in an op-ed he penned earlier this year. Burger notes that the IRS is easy political fodder given the widespread and understandable distaste for paying taxes.

"Having worked for the IRS for more than three decades, I know the sentiment spans generations. Iconic 1950s comedian Milton Berle quipped of completing his tax forms, 'Who says you can’t get killed by a blank?' Modern hip-hop mogul Dr. Dre said he fears only two things: God and the IRS," Burger wrote in Newsday. "But however counterintuitive it may feel, Americans could hardly select a more useful 'frenemy' — nor a more guaranteed investment — than the IRS."

However, Burger notes, allowing such simplistic views of the matter to govern policymaking would be a fatal mistake, given the IRS' crucial role in keeping the country running.

"In Fiscal Year 2016, the IRS collected more than $3.3 trillion of the $4 trillion federal budget," Burger points. "The IRS received more than 244 million tax returns and other forms, answered 60 million phone calls, helped elderly citizens prepare 3.8 million returns through special programs, and issued nearly $350 billion in refunds.

The IRS website alone was viewed nearly 2 billion times and the online 'Where’s My Refund?' tool processed nearly 300 million inquiries."

As both Burger and the latest ProPublica piece point out, the end result is an agency that is hamstrung, even as it faces ever-increasing expectations.

"Without enough staff, the IRS has slashed even basic functions. It has drastically pulled back from pursuing people who don’t bother filing their tax returns. New investigations of 'non filers,' as they’re called, dropped from 2.4 million in 2011 to 362,000 last year," write Kiel and Eisinger.

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