It’s said that your heart lies where your treasure is, but the Biden Administration won’t admit that its heart is set on tax enforcement. Officials are suggesting that the revamp of the Internal Revenue Service will be tilted toward customer service. All the evidence, including the legislation’s text, says otherwise.
The Treasury Department is campaigning to convince Americans to forget what they’ve heard about new funding for audits. The new party line is that the $80 billion in IRS funding that Democrats passed this month will be directed at first toward helping ordinary tax filers. “Taxpayers should expect a significantly higher level of service in the next filing season,” one Treasury official told the Journal on Friday.
Focusing on service would be welcome. The IRS taxpayer-advocate office found that the backlog of returns reached 35 million last year, delaying a large share of refunds. Calling the agency wasn’t much help for anyone seeking an update. Only one in nine callers was able to reach a representative, after an average hold time of 23 minutes.
The problem with the Administration’s publicity push is what it obscures. Democrats started playing down their plan to expand audits even before they passed the funding. So taxpayers may reasonably wonder whether the customer-service emphasis is mostly sincere, or mostly smokescreen.
Start with the funding gap. Enforcement is by far the biggest line item in the new IRS funding. More than half of the spending, $46 billion, will go to monitoring and compliance. That includes hiring tens of thousands of new agents and increasing the number of audits.
But Democrats committed only $3.2 billion of new funding to taxpayer service—4% of the outlay. Divided evenly over the next 10 years, the funding boost would amount to an 11% annual increase over the current taxpayer-services budget. But between hiring service reps to help taxpayers or auditors to hound them, it’s clear what Democrats have prioritized.
It’s also noteworthy that Democrats started emphasizing customer service only after public backlash to new audits. This month Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Robert Menendez and Rep. Abigail Spanberger cosigned a sternly worded letter to the IRS urging more responsiveness to taxpayers. Never mind that all three voted for a bill that funded enforcement over service at a 14 to 1 ratio.
The irony is that poor IRS service is one of the biggest reasons taxpayers dread more enforcement. Any audit is intimidating and often onerous, but there’s little more hellish than getting an order in the mail from an agency from which you can’t get anyone on the phone, much less a straight answer to a tax question.
Despite their best spin, Democrats have given the public little reason to think all that money will yield better IRS service.