The Real IRS Scandal: Budget Cuts

Cutting the tax collection budget hurts everyone in the long-run.

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David Simon, of "The Wire" fame, once responded to the idea of "doing more with less" by saying, "That's the bullshit of bean counters who care only about the bottom line. You do less with less." For the Internal Revenue Service, the line should perhaps be updated to "you do less with less, and also cause a scandal."

The IRS, of course, was recently caught singling out conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status for extra scrutiny. IRS employees in a Cincinnati office used search terms such as "tea party" and "patriot" to find organizations they deemed worthy of more attention in their request to be exempted from paying federal taxes. (The irony of tea party groups complaining about not getting effectively subsidized by the government in a timely enough fashion will be left for another time.)

The "scandal" has already caused the acting commissioner of the IRS to lose his job and prompted a hearing on Capitol Hill Friday during which lawmakers expressed their outrage that the tax agency could act in such a manner. But Congress deserves its own share of blame for the debacle.

[See a collection of editorial Cartoons on the IRS Scandal.]

Now, the IRS employees who were searching for "tea party" surely should have known better. But the fact of the matter is that the agency has been dealing with a deluge of applications for tax-exempt status at a time when its budget is shrinking. The size of the IRS workforce has dropped 9 percent  from its 2010 level, and the agency has seen its budget cut in each of the last two fiscal years. This fiscal year, the amount the IRS spends per capita (meaning per citizen) will be 20 percent lower than it was in 2002, according to an analysis by tax expert David Cay Johnston.

Meanwhile, as Reuters reported, "The IRS has seen the number of groups applying for 501(c)4 status double in the wake of a January 2010 Supreme Court decision that loosened campaign-finance rules."  The Obama administration has requested budget increases for the IRS, but Republicans in Congress refuse to approve them. So it's perhaps not surprising that already overworked employees at the agency looked for a few shortcuts.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

And things are likely not going to get any better this summer when the IRS shuts down entirely for five days due to budget cuts under the so-called "sequester." These cuts don't just inconvenience people who need tax assistance; they cost the Treasury money. The IRS estimates that every dollar spent on enforcement brings in $4 to $5 in additional revenue, so cutting the IRS budget is akin to the government cutting off its nose to spite its face.

My colleague Robert Schlesinger noted today that the real scandal surrounding the attack at the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, is not who edited which talking point when, but that the State Department was denied funds to beef up consular security. Much the same can be said for the IRS. The scandal is not about the agency's shortcuts, but the lawmakers who pushed it towards relying on bone-headed tactics by refusing to give it the money it needs to do its job.

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