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$80bn for the IRS? Fund the US taxman, but not like this

By August 20, 2023No Comments

(This story originally appeared in The Guardian)

Ask any accountant we’ll tell you that the Internal Revenue Service is woefully underfunded. Our clients complain about the long delays for refunds, the interminable waits for getting answers and the frustrations waiting for guidance on issues that affect their businesses.

But it’s not just accountants that are clamoring for more IRS funding. Most taxpayers I know will admit that the IRS needs a serious upgrade. So why the big brouhaha over the $80bn approved last year to hire more auditors and upgrade the agency’s pathetically outdated systems? The answer lies not in why it’s so badly needed. It’s in how badly it was sold to the American public.

We all pay for things we don’t like. We need to have insurance but we don’t like the premiums. We don’t really want to give a wedding gift to that fifth cousin or tip the waiter even though the service wasn’t that great. And of course, we pay taxes – and no one likes that either.

The same goes for the IRS. We know that everyone should be paying their fair share and we get that there has to be a government agency to oversee this. Making sure the IRS has adequate funding is a no-brainer. And yet here we are arguing over its need. For this, I blame President Biden and the Democrats.

The bipartisan Tax Foundation found that the costs to collect $100 (in 2021 dollars) has decreased 41% since 1991 and that during this same period, the amount collected per taxpayer has increased 45% and that the agency did this despite its much lower staff. These are impressive accomplishments when you consider that most of the agency’s systems are decades old.

Even so, Republicans and the media pounced on the $80bn allocated under the Inflation Reduction Act to be used for hiring more auditors and technology upgrades which could potentially save more than $1tn per year. And during recent talks to raise the US borrowing limit, Republicans somehow managed to claw a quarter of that amount back with plans to pursue more.

Most people in both parties understand the necessity to fund an agency whose sole objective is to ensure that everyone pays their fair share of taxes. But you can’t really blame Republicans for crying foul. This is what politicians do when there’s a slam-dunk issue like this. Big government: bad. Small guy taxpayer: good.

But there was a better way for the Democrats to achieve this funding, which, according to the Cato Institute, will increase the IRS’s budget from $5.2bn to $19.5bn by 2033 – about $1.4bn per year, which is just one-half of one percentage point of our country’s overall spending.

Why not bury some of this amount in the overall treasury department’s annual budget of $3.24tn? Over a 10-year period that funding could have been absorbed by the numerous subdivisions of the agency and then re-allocated back to the IRS in that bureaucratic way that bureaucrats do where no one really knows where or how the money was spent.

Or how about trying what any business owner would do when appropriating money to a project: assign quantifiable metrics and holds its recipients accountable? Make it such that the spending could be paused or even pulled unless these numerical goals are achieved each year. That way the Republicans could insist they’re holding their opponents’ feet to the fire, while the Democrats still get to spend the money.

Or you could take a pure tech angle and take people out of the equation. Remove and prohibit the “hiring” of new auditors and instead mandate that the funds only be used for technology. Better yet, AI technology because that’s what’s hot! Emphasize that the IRS is going to be the federal government’s leader in tech, reducing its headcount and increasing its output and responsiveness by leveraging the latest AI tools as it upgrades its systems. Of course, some may be scared by the prospect of out-of-control robots but it’s obvious to most of us who regularly deal with the IRS that – probably more than any other agency – most of what it does can be automated.

But no. Instead, Biden and the Democrats allowed an inordinate amount of attention to be drawn directly to the $80bn for the evil IRS, which in turn invited a tidal wave of backlash. This didn’t have to happen. With a little bit of thought, some maneuvering, finessing and manipulation, that money – which is sorely needed – could have been spent under the radar and much of this controversy could have been avoided.

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