Taxpayer advocate slams IRS service as ‘officially worst’ since 2001

You couldn’t blame IRS employees if they disliked tax day as much as the rest of us do, especially if they glimpsed C-SPAN on Wednesday.

The House passed several bills that would curb what many in the Republican majority see as the agency’s abuse of its power.

In committee rooms, lawmakers decried the poor customer service at the IRS.

“People feel like they’re fighting against a machine that doesn’t care,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C), chairman of the Government Operations panel of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

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National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson agreed.

“I’ve never seen such low levels of taxpayer service. It’s officially the worst since 2001,” she said.

Across Capitol Hill in Senate chambers, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen defended the agency against Republicans who blamed it for problems the government has had in implementing the tax-related requirements of the Affordable Care Act. This is the first year that Americans have had to state on their tax returns whether they’ve purchased health insurance.

House approves bills to “rein in IRS abuse”

The majority of bills approved by the House would “rein in IRS abuse,” according to Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), chairman of Ways and Means’ Subcommittee on Oversight.

One bill would codify the “Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights,” a policy that the IRS adopted last summer after years of advocacy by Olson.

Other measures are more controversial and, largely, inspired by the recent scandal caused by allegations of targeting of conservative groups by the IRS’ tax-exempt division.

One bill clarifies that IRS employees could lose their jobs if they abused their positions for either personal or political reasons.

“When the American people learned nearly two years ago that the IRS targeted political groups for extra scrutiny, they were outraged — and rightly so. There is no room for political targeting in our democracy,” said Rep. Jim Renacci (R-Ohio), the bill’s sponsor.

Separately, the House passed a bill to require contractors to show proof that employees assigned to larger projects did not owe taxes. It rejected a similar bill aimed at preventing people who owe back taxes from working for the government. Approximately 100,000 federal employees who have tax debts could have lost their jobs. Federal labor unions had lobbied hard against the legislation.

Olson ties bad customer service to budgets and lack of innovation

The IRS had warned that it would give poor service to customers this year because of budget cuts. It was right.

Call center representatives answered only 37 percent of taxpayer calls from Jan. 1 to April 13, Olson said. Callers waited on hold 24 minutes on average before talking with the representatives, she said. Those statistics are nearly twice as bad as last year. And it’s going to get worse after today.

“The IRS is only answering the most basic of tax-law questions through April 15 and none after that date,” she said. “Let me be clear: If you call tomorrow, April 16, you will not get answers to any tax-law questions from the IRS.”

The quality of customer service at IRS walk-in centers and through the mail also has plummeted, she said.

The IRS has blamed the decline on consecutive years of budget cuts, with a corresponding loss of 12,000 employees since fiscal 2010. Olson told House members she agreed, for the most part.

“There is no answer to the taxpayer-service side of the equation except more funding, even as we move into electronic taxpayer accounts and things like that,” she said. “When the IRS is proposing to do things to you, you want to talk with someone to make sure they got your information and understand what you’re saying.”

While the IRS has lost money, it has gained new responsibilities through recent laws, including the Affordable Care Act, she said. But in addition to money, the agency suffers from a lack of creativity, particularly when it comes to combating the growing problem of tax-related identity theft, she said.

“On the enforcement side, I believe they can do better with their procedures. They are not bringing in the innovation — the young folks who would say, ‘Let’s look at it a different way and take a different approach,'” she said.

Half of the IRS’ workforce is over the age of 50. The number of employees under the age of 30 is declining, suggesting that the IRS is becoming less attractive as an employer, said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who supports greater funding for the agency.

Olson agreed, but cautioned that Congress should attach strings to any increase in the IRS’ budget.

“I would also suggest setting goals for the IRS and holding them accountable, saying, ‘How are you going to achieve them if we give you this money,” she said.

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