- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The IRS “deliberately” cut its customer service this year, making the tax season more painful than it had to be for millions of taxpayers, House Republicans concluded in a new report Wednesday that accused the agency of wasting money on pet projects while hanging up on millions of callers.

Wait times spiked to an average of 34.4 minutes before callers got through, and less than half of all callers ever got that far in the first place, with most calls being rejected by an overloaded system, the House Ways and Means GOP staff said in the new report.

The IRS cut its funding for customer service even as it continued to spend money in areas GOP lawmakers said were questionable at best — including millions of dollars on performance awards paid to most employees.

“Fiscal year 2014 bonus money could have been used to answer 7.2 million additional phone calls,” said Rep. Peter J. Roskam, Illinois Republican and chairman of the Ways and Means oversight committee.

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen bristled at the charges, saying he’s been forced to make the cuts because Congress has reduced his agency’s budget even as the number of filings has gone up and the agency is taking on ever more duties, such as policing Obamacare’s individual mandate.

But he denied that his agency had singled out taxpayers’ customer service for special reductions.

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“We’ve had to make choices across the board. We’ve cut enforcement services, we cut taxpayer services, and we cut information technology,” he told the panel, saying those are the three discretionary areas where he can reduce spending, and he made cuts in all of them.

He said they’ve been cutting personnel as well, including hiring fewer temporary employees during tax crunch time, which hurt service levels.

Mr. Koskinen said, from his standpoint, his agency has been “double-sequestered” — it faced the same cuts as most other agencies from the across-the-board trims Congress imposed a few years back, but then saw even deeper targeted cuts from lawmakers who said they were sending a message that the agency needs to clean up its behavior after the tea party-targeting scandal and reports of massive misspending.

He asked that Congress at least restore $900 million that was cut in the initial sequester, saying that would go a long way to restoring the level of service the agency used to deliver.

Mr. Koskinen said Congress could also help by finishing its annual tax legislation earlier in the year, giving the IRS a head start.

Rep. Mike Kelly, Pennsylvania Republican, said Mr. Koskinen himself made things worse when he told his agency employees they would have to learn how to do “less with less.”

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“You cannot go to the troops and tell the troops that things have never been darker, days have never been longer, the winters have never been colder, but you know what, we have a solution to that: We’ll just do less with less,” Mr. Kelly said.

The IRS has spent $1.2 billion on implementing Obamacare over the last four years — something Mr. Koskinen said was required by law, but that Republicans said could have been better used in other areas.

Republicans also questioned why the IRS is still paying the salaries of federal employees doing labor union work on what’s known as “official time.” Most federal agencies have a similar arrangement where employees who are performing union work are still paid by taxpayers, even though they are focused on union business.

GOP lawmakers told Mr. Koskinen he should consider granting private collections firms the ability to collect unpaid taxes, pointing to reviews by the agency’s own inspector general that say it could be a successful program.

Mr. Koskinen, however, said his agency has studied the issue before and concluded it’s a bad deal for taxpayers.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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