Past IRS commissioners to Congress: Enough with the budget cuts

The former heads of the Internal Revenue Service have written to Congress, telling them that after five straight years of budget cuts, enough is enough.

Larry Gibbs
Larry Gibbs

In a letter to the House and Senate appropriations committees, seven of the IRS’ past commissioners urged Congress for more funding in the upcoming fiscal 2016 budget, claiming the agency has been set up to fail with an increased workload and fewer resources.

“None of us ever experience, nor are we aware of, any IRS appropriations reductions of this magnitude over such a prolonged period of time,” the commissioners wrote in the letter.

Over the past five years, Congress has cut $1.2 billion from the IRS’ budget, an overall loss of 17 percent.

Larry Gibbs, an IRS commissioner under the Ronald Reagan administration, told Federal Drive with Tom Temin the agency has already hit rock-bottom and cannot keep cutting staff to match shrinking budgets.

“What we tried to do in the letter is explain why we’re approaching the Congress, and also what the ramifications will be if there are further budget cuts. And if there is not an increase in the IRS budget, the ramifications are the American public is going to suffer,” Gibbs said.

The IRS’ workforce problem is twofold: It has 15,000 fewer full-time employees than it did five years ago, and it isn’t attracting younger talent.

More than 50 percent of IRS’ workers are over the age of 50, and 24 percent is eligible to retire. In three years, 38 percent of the workforce will reach retirement age.

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“What that means is you’re losing your most knowledgeable and experienced personnel at the Internal Revenue Service,” Gibbs said.

By comparison, only 3,400 of its 85,0000 workers are under the age of 30, and 384 employees are under the age of 25. Budget constraints have led the IRS to impose a hiring freeze since 2010, and intermittently since 2005.

“So the IRS is shrinking, The knowledge and experience is walking out the door, and nobody’s coming in to replace the folks the IRS is losing,” Gibbs said.

What’s more, the passage of the Affordable Care Act has added to the IRS’ workload during the tax filing season.

“The Congress is passing more and more major programs for the IRS to administer,” Gibbs said. “So the workload’s going up, resources are going down.”

On average, the government collects $4 in tax revenue for every $1 spent toward the IRS budget, Gibbs said. But it also works in reverse. Cuts affecting auditors and workers in the compliance  and enforcement departments negatively impact the government’s ability to collect taxes.

Koskinen the ‘turnaround artist’

Grumbling about the IRS isn’t news, Gibbs said, and leading the agency doesn’t win you many friends.

“The IRS is simply the agency, as a tax collector, that frankly people love to hate,” Gibbs said. “You’re not looking for love if you’re the commissioner of the IRS. If you do your job right, you’re looking for respect, confidence — and if you’re really, really good — trust.”

Trust could be harder to come by, since the 2015 tax filing season was officially declared the worst in terms of customer service since 2001, according to National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson. However, Gibbs said he puts a lot of faith in IRS Commissioner John Koskinen to improve the agency’s morale problem.

“He’s a turnaround artist, and with all of the problems of the last five years particularly, the IRS needs someone to come in and turn the agency around, deal with the problems the agency has at the present time, and I think John Koskinen can do that, if he’s left alone to do it,” Gibbs said. “I think [the IRS] a good organization, but it’s certainly  taken more than its fair share of criticism at the present time.

The letter’s authors have yet to hear a response from the appropriations committees, but with a government shutdown deadline looming on Dec. 11, Gibbs said he expects members of Congress to be deep in the weeds with deliberations.

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