IRS workers hope to sway Congress to reverse budget cuts

With the 2015 tax filing season upon us, long lines have become the norm at the IRS walk-in center in downtown Atlanta, said Terry Scott, the National Treasury Employees Union representative for center employees, tax collectors and others in Georgia.

“People frequently wait for hours and hours only to be told they have to come back another day,” he said. “The people who are hurt the most by this are the elderly, low-income, disabled and non-English speakers.”

Inside the centers, it might be even worse. Center employees have been told to stop preparing tax returns for customers, and instead only answer the most basic questions, Scott said. Some centers in suburban Atlanta are running on skeleton crews of one or two employees and morale has sunk to all-time lows. “And now we’re bracing for potential furloughs,” he said.

At IRS offices in Ogden, Utah, it’s gotten so bad that employees recently planned to pool their money to buy office supplies, said Jenny Brown, a tax examiner and the local NTEU chapter president.

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Such is the life of frontline IRS workers coping with a 17-percent cut to their budget over the past five years and facing, potentially, two furlough days just to make the agency’s funding last through the summer. So far, their stories appear to have fallen on deaf ears on Capitol Hill, where many Republicans are upset with the IRS over alleged mistreatment of conservative groups that applied for tax-exempt status.

But Scott, Brown and more than 300 other NTEU members are visiting Washington this week to see if they can sway any members to soften their stance.

With Republicans leading Congress, the next two years will be challenging, NTEU President Colleen Kelley told the union members before they trudged to the Capitol.

“Overcoming challenges is what NTEU is all about,” she said. “We will not let Congress make decisions without hearing from us first.”

Having federal employees meet one-on-one with members is the union’s best strategy, Kelley later told reporters. She said she believes several new members of Congress have never met federal employees or visited their agencies. After this week, the union expects its members to continue building relationships with their lawmakers throughout the year.

“No one gets a pass,” Kelley said of the lawmakers. “I want them to be confronted with the facts so they can’t say they didn’t know.”

While NTEU may have four conversations with every lawmaker who agrees with the union on bread-and-butter issues like a federal pay raise, it will try to meet nine times with lawmakers who disagree, she said.

Kelley also plans to be on Capitol Hill a lot in the coming weeks. She is trying to schedule a meeting with Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), head of the House subcommittee that oversees the federal workforce, and Sen. Ron Johnson (R- Wisc.), the new chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and an outspoken advocate of smaller government.

Kelley said she is encouraged by President Barack Obama’s budget plan for fiscal 2016, which would boost IRS funding by 18 percent.

The budget itself will not pass the Republican-led Congress, but pieces of it might, she said. Besides the funding for the IRS, she is hopeful that Congress will go along with the President’s plan to repeal the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration.

Otherwise, agencies would have to lay off employees sooner or later, she said. The IRS, because of its budget crunch, may have to resort to reductions in force as early as next year.

“It is one of the ones that are most at risk,” Kelley said.

She also is working to cultivate better relations with the new head of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Former Chairman Darrell Issa (R- Calif.) was an outspoken critic of the IRS. He led the House to hold Lois Lerner, the former head of the IRS tax exempt group, in contempt.

The new chair, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), has promised to set a different tone. Kelley described him as “accessible.”

“I’ve testified a number of times before him, although it’s usually on something he supports and I oppose,” she said.

Chaffetz is scheduled to speak Wednesday at the NTEU conference. He’ll be joined by the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).

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