By ZACH NOBLE
Last month, Congress doled out 2016 funds in an omnibus appropriations bill that, sure, contained lots of spending, including on Planned Parenthood, but it also cut a great deal!
Just look at IRS funding: The Obama White House asked that the IRS get more than $12 billion, but Congress slashed $1.7 billion off that request.
HOWEVER: That's probably gonna hurt the taxpayers members of Congress always say they're standing up for.
Three major things to hate about the IRS: hilariously wasteful spending on things like Star Trek training videos; corruption or abuse, like the 2013 targeting of conservative groups; and failing to help out the people who are just trying to pay their darn tax bills. (If you're mad about tax rates, those are lawmakers' fault. If you're mad about audits, know that audit rates are at their lowest since 2004.)
What’s Congress to do if it wants to make the IRS better?
Specifically banning the IRS from making elaborate Star Trek videos is a good start, and it’s what Congress did in Section 105 of the omnibus bill.
Sections 107 and 108 ban the IRS from targeting citizens and groups for scrutiny based on their ideologies – more solid stuff.
On the third IRS-hating point, Congress earmarked $290 million that the IRS can only use for taxpayer services, fraud prevention and cybersecurity. Yay!
But merely throwing a chunk of change at the agency won’t necessarily fix the deeper problems.
IRS customer service has been awful for years now, and IRS Commissioner John Koskinen has warned it might just keep getting worse.
National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson worried in her annual report to Congress, released Jan. 6, that the IRS will use technology to retreat further from personally helping taxpayers. (The gargantuan size of Olson’s report, the “executive summary” of which alone is 84 pages long, should send a clear signal about the mess the IRS is in.)
The problem: The IRS is forced to work with a ridiculously complicated tax code that just keeps getting more complicated as government piles on new loopholes, tax credits and penalties year after year.
The tax code is so complicated that IRS employees are forbidden from offering clear answers to tax questions on social media.
It’s so complicated that only half of Americans actually prepare their own taxes (and many of those people rely on private companies’ software to help). The labyrinthine laws help prop up a whole perverse private industry, where people have to pay fees just to figure how much they have to pay in taxes. As Olson noted, that’s hitting some minorities worse than the rest of us.
Olson warned in her report that the problem could worsen in future years.
Maybe give the IRS some more money.
Adjusted for inflation, the IRS got nearly 20 percent less money in 2015 than it got in 2010, and the 2016 appropriation kept base funding unchanged from 2015.
If you’re going to keep choking off funds, you ought to push for a dramatic simplification of the tax code – and that means slashing loopholes that benefit rich donors and the average Joe alike. It would be painful, but you could wind up with a system that the IRS could actually administer, where your citizens could pay their tax bills easily and without surrendering their cash and personal information to middlemen in the private sector. It could be great.
“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away,” Antoine de Saint Exupery once noted.
But, of course, it’s too much to expect perfection from Congress or the tax code.
Zach Noble is a journalist who has covered everything from the OPM hack to a rescue dog's retirement party. He's been wrestling to reconcile his bleeding heart Catholicism with his pragmatic libertarianism since that freshman year love affair with Ayn Rand. He tweets erratically as @thezachnoble.