IRS critical pay authority renewal clears hurdles in the House

The House Appropriations Committee approved a fiscal 2020 spending bill provision that would restore the IRS’s streamlined critical pay authority until Septem...

Members of Congress have taken plenty of shots at the IRS over the past few years about the antiquity of some of its legacy IT systems, but members of the House have moved one step closer to giving the agency the freedom to hire in-demand tech talent more quickly and offer them pay that’s more competitive with the private sector.

The House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday approved a provision in the fiscal 2020 financial services and general government spending bill that would restore the IRS’s streamlined critical pay authority until September 2023.

That authority, which lapsed in 2013 after lawmakers failed to renew it, gives the agency the ability to hire short-term cyber and IT talent more quickly and at a rate beyond the General Schedule pay scale for career employees.

With this critical pay authority reinstated, the IRS could make up to 40 new hires at any one time, and bring those new temporary employees onboard within six-to-eight weeks.

By comparison, IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig complained to lawmakers in April that it can take six-to-eight months to bring new career employees onboard. The hiring process has gotten so drawn out, he added, that promising prospective employees have withdrawn themselves from consideration.

Under this hiring authority, appointees can work at the IRS for four years maximum.

The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, in a December 2014 report, found that IRS had made 168 hires under this streamlined hiring authority between 1998 and 2013. Those hired received base salaries ranging from $130,000 to more than $227,000. By comparison, 2013 base pay for members of agency’s Senior Executive Service maxed out at $179,700.

Leadership at the IRS over the past two administrations has urged Congress to bring back the critical pay authority almost immediately after it expired. John Koskinen, the agency’s former commissioner under the Obama administration, and former acting Commissioner David Kautter both supported renewing the critical pay authority.

IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig had urged Congress to restore critical pay authority during his nomination hearings last summer, and renewed that push to House and Senate lawmakers in back-to-back budget hearings in April. However, the agency continues to struggle with aging IT systems.

President Donald Trump’s budget request also recommended reinstating critical pay authority, but the House Appropriations Committee has parted ways with the president’s recommendation of keeping the IRS’s overall budget nearly flat at $11.5 billion.

Instead, committee members have proposed giving the IRS a $12 billion budget for FY 2020 — nearly a $700 million increase from enacted levels.

“The IRS has lost 23,000 full-time employees since 2010 because of severe budget cuts, so the funding level approved today by the House Appropriations Committee represents a true turning point for the agency’s ability to restore its workforce and service levels to peak efficiency,” National Treasury Employees Union President Tony Reardon said in a statement Tuesday.

Critical pay authority would play a significant role in getting the IRS’ six-year Integrated Modernization Business Plan off the ground. The $2.7 billion IT modernization effort aims to replace hardware systems and modernize computer code that dates back to the John F. Kennedy administration

The spending bill also meets the IRS’ request of $290 million for IT systems modernization, an increase of $140 from enacted levels. The agency expects those funds would allow it to reduce aging legacy hardware systems from a target of more than 43 percent in FY 2019 to 39 percent by the end of FY 2020.

But even if the provision in the funding bill doesn’t make it through the budget process, the House on Monday passed a bipartisan IRS reform bill that would also reauthorize critical pay authority.

In addition to extending critical pay authority through September 2025, the wide-ranging Taxpayer First Act would also overhaul the IRS Oversight Board and require the agency to develop a comprehensive employee training strategy that includes improving “technology-based training.”

The bill includes several provision from the Taxpayer First Act that Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.) introduced last year.

“This bill represents the most significant reform to the IRS in two decades and is an important first step toward restoring full faith in one of our government’s most important agencies,” Portman said in a statement Monday about the House bill.

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