By U.S. Senators Chuck Grassley and John Thune
The IRS stumbled its way through tax season, still struggling to try to restore its reputation after its political targeting scandal gravely undermined confidence in the federal tax-collecting agency’s ability to fairly administer tax laws.
With the 2015 tax-filing season fading in the rearview mirror, now is the time to look to the road ahead and make serious repairs at the beleaguered federal agency.
A look under the IRS’ hood exposes systemic troubles that continue to throttle quality taxpayer services. Even 16 years after Congress passed sweeping taxpayer rights laws, a culture of mismanagement continues to steer the IRS away from sorely needed public redemption. Instead, misguided decisions and more violations of taxpayer privacy clog its core mission to serve the taxpaying public with integrity.
Consider that wait times nearly doubled for calls placed to the toll-free hot lines during the 2015 tax season, according to the IRS’ internal watchdog. And for taxpayers whose calls made the connection, the IRS would answer only “basic” questions. What’s more, the National Taxpayer Advocate also reported in January that the IRS would not answer any tax law questions for the 15 million taxpayers who file after the April 15 deadline. And yet the IRS prioritized $60 million in bonuses to its employees.
It’s time to flush out a mindset of self-service and retool the agency with quality customer service.
It’s even harder for taxpayers to swallow gross mismanagement that includes hours on the taxpayer dime devoted to union activity, federal employees who remain on paid administrative leave for years without doing their jobs and federal workers whose tax delinquency adds up to $3.5 billion.
These are head scratchers that taxpayers and good-government watchdogs (like us) are itching to see fixed.
No doubt, the IRS has a tall order to fill, processing nearly 150 million tax returns and receiving 100 million phone calls each year. Tasked with an increasingly complex federal code, the IRS also bears the burden of implementing expansive tax law changes that go above and beyond revenue collection to administering dozens of complicated new provisions created by Obamacare.
What’s worse, the Government Accountability Office found that the IRS sent out $5.8 billion in fraudulent tax refunds in 2013. Considering the recent massive data breaches at the IRS and Office of Personnel Management, the federal government is clearly facing a steep curve to thwart cyber crimes that put sensitive personal information at risk of piracy.
Taxpayers sacrifice substantial shares of their hard-earned money to finance public services for the public good. Our system of voluntary compliance depends on the IRS responsibly collecting taxes and administering federal tax laws with integrity and fairness. The last thing the IRS ought to be doing is squandering tax dollars or leaving taxpayers vulnerable to identity theft.
Basic principles of good government should be the rule, not the exception. This includes shielding taxpayer information, treating individual taxpayers with respect and professionalism, and providing first-rate customer service. So when the IRS underperforms when it comes to these fundamental functions of its mission or the taxpaying public perceives unfair bias in its performance, it is clear the IRS needs a new map to get back on track.
Law-abiding taxpayers play by the rules and expect the same in return. The IRS needs to get serious about mending fences and rebuilding trust with the taxpaying public.
Building from bipartisan reforms enacted in 1988, 1996, and 1998, we just introduced new legislation that would root out misconduct and restore sagging credibility caused by poor customer service and violations of taxpayer rights.
Our Taxpayer Bill of Rights Enhancement Act of 2015 sends a strong signal to those entrusted with administering the nation’s tax laws. The IRS needs to remember that it conducts the people’s business when it enforces and administers the nation’s tax laws. Our bill shows that Congress means business when it comes to tax fairness and taxpayer privacy.
Take a look at a few points of interest on our legislative route to upgrade taxpayer service at the IRS. Our bill would:
• establish a statutory requirement for the IRS commissioner to ensure that IRS employees abide by the “Taxpayer Bill of Rights” adopted last summer by the federal agency;
• update termination requirements for misconduct by an IRS employee who violates the “10 deadly sins” originally in the IRS Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998, clarifying that abusing official actions for political purposes qualifies as a job-losing offense;
• increase criminal and civil penalties for the unauthorized disclosure of taxpayer information, forbid use of personal email accounts for official business, and install confidentiality firewalls for government contractors; and
• enhance accountability by requiring timely updates to victims of alleged wrongdoing by IRS employees.
America can’t afford to have taxpayers lose faith in their government’s ability to fairly administer revenue collection. Enforcing meatier taxpayer rights at the IRS will help flesh out better customer service and move toward fixing bone-deep grievances.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, a former chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, championed the 1988, 1996 and 1998 taxpayer rights laws currently on the books. Sens. Grassley and John Thune currently serve together on the Finance Committee and are joining forces to make the right to quality service a high priority at the IRS.