Sequestration: Taxing the IRS

AP PhotoHere’s one consequence of sequestration that you don’t (and won’t) hear many Republicans complaining about: the IRS has furloughed more than 89,000 employees due to the sequester.

A little more than a month into the sequester and fresh out of tax season, the Internal Revenue Service has decided to issue furlough notices to all of its employees next week.

According to an internal memo issued by Acting IRS Commissioner Steve Miller, “Everyone is covered by this furlough, and that means everyone from the Acting Commissioner and executives to managers and employees.”

The first furlough days will include May 24, June 14, July 5, July 22 and August 30, with another two days possible in August or September.

On these days, all operations directed at the public, including toll-free help and Taxpayer Assistance Centers, will be closed.

Mark the above dates on you calendar, and don’t call the IRS with your tax questions on those days, because you won’t get an answer. For all public purposes no one will be there.

My guess is that suits Republicans just fine. They can’t come right out and say as much, so they’re not tweeting this story as much as the FAA furloughs. But that doesn’t mean Republicans haven’t had anything to say about the IRS furloughs.

Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) called the IRS furloughs a “stunt” cooked up by the agency and the White House to “inflict the maximum amount of pain.”

Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) blasted the IRS’s plan to shut down on five separate days over the next four months, instead of staggering furlough days more evenly.

“When small business owners have questions about payroll taxes or a family is wondering where their refund check is, someone needs to be on the other end of the telephone to answer those questions,” Brady said. “Sadly, this is more political stunting from this White House.”

Whose pain are we talking about here? Rep. Brady speaks of small business owners and families calling the IRS and finding no one to help them. But who are they going to call next, when no one answers at the IRS on what would otherwise be a normal business day? Some, at least, might call their members of Congress; either to find out why they can’t get help with their tax questions, or to complain about it. (If I were the IRS, I’d be sure to record an outgoing message explaining why no one’s there to help the public.)

Brady’s “stunt” comment reflects another GOP position on the sequester: that government agencies can simply carry on with business as usual, because they won’t even feel the deep cuts to their budgets. As Republicans did the the FAA and the FDA, Sen. Tom Coburn urged the IRS to “cut waste” in response to the sequester, instead of furloughing employees.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) is pressing the Treasury Department to cut waste in the face of the sequester instead of furloughing employees.

Coburn said Wednesday that, instead of furloughs, the agency could roll back travel costs, hire fewer employees and even work with the Obama administration to suspend pay for federal employees who are late on their taxes.

“While the IRS is furloughing the very workers who provide assistance to Americans paying taxes, the agency is failing to collect millions of dollars in taxes owed by federal employees, wasting more sending officials to conferences around the country, and subsidizing the export of American jobs along with the taxes they generate,” Coburn wrote to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.

Coburn has sent a slew of letters to federal officials in recent weeks, detailing how agencies can better manage the automatic sequester cuts. The $85 billion in cuts, to be implemented over seven months, started going into effect at the start of March.

Coburn and other Republicans conveniently ignore that many agencies have already made significant cuts. The IRS has carved out $1 billion in savings since 2010, by cutting staff, travel, office space, and contracts. The sequester takes another chunk out of and IRS budget that’s already been carved free of “fat.” At this point further cuts will just extract a pound of flesh.

On one hand, the mild GOP outrage over IRS furloughs is amusing, given that just two months ago Republicans were outraged that the IRS was not shutting down, and they were particularly upset that furloughs were postponed until after tax season.

On the other hand, the consequences of sequestering the IRS budget isn’t too far out of line with what conservatives desire. While the IRS furloughs won’t delay tax returns there may be fewer audits, and fewer eyeballs scouring tax returns may benefit tax cheats. As Think Progress’ Pat Garofalo pointed out, that means less revenue ..

The IRS estimates that every dollar spent on enforcement brings in $4-$5 dollars of additional revenue. As Reuters’ David Cay Johnston found, every hour spent on corporate tax enforcement bring in more than $9,000 in revenue.

Already, the IRS has been facing a bigger job with fewer resources. The sequester is going to make that worse, and in the meantime, won’t even accomplish its core goal.

So, sequestering the IRS accomplishes a core conservative goal: starving government programs of revenue, until they’re no longer able to effectively serve about 99 percent of Americans.

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Terrance is currently an Online Producer and blogger at Campaign for America's Future. Previously, he worked as a Blogging and Social Media Consultant, an outgrowth of my work as Blogmaster for EchoDitto, Inc.

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