The IRS needs to employ enough people to, at a bare minimum, answer the doggone phone. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
In December of 2019, my mom died. A couple of months later, the pandemic overtook American society, and as with so many other aspects of modern life that quickly took on an extra level of complexity and difficulty during those harrowing and chaotic months, settling her affairs got a good deal more challenging.
One notable example: dealing with her taxes.
In June of 2020 – two months past the normal due date, but well in advance of the special extended deadline – I mailed her 2019 tax returns to the state and federal governments.
Not long afterward, the State of North Carolina deposited her refund – a modest sum that helped cover some basic expenses.
But from the IRS, I received no word.
As summer turned to fall, I sought to find out what was going on. The amount of money in question wasn’t huge – just a few thousand dollars – but, as the executor of her estate, I knew it was my duty to follow through. And I knew my mom – a detail person with a passion for fairness and justice — would have expected it.
Unfortunately, a search of the IRS website produced no helpful information; it couldn’t even tell me whether the return had been received. Attempts to contact someone by phone proved futile.
After online searches and inquiries to tax experts revealed that the IRS was swamped and overwhelmed by the pandemic, I resolved to wait and see.
In early 2021 – after following some tricks recommended by an accounting firm and waiting on hold for hours– I finally got in touch with a live IRS staffer by phone. She informed me that while she couldn’t confirm whether the agency had the return, it was probably sitting in a stack somewhere and that I should remain patient.
Months – then a full year — went by with no word.
Finally, in early 2022, an inquiry on the IRS website revealed that the return was being processed. I rejoiced.
And then: nothing.
A few months later I checked the IRS website again – which once more, to my mounting frustration, indicated that the agency had no record of the return.
Today, 27 months after the return was filed, I am working to arrange an in-person meeting with an IRS staffer – believe me, no easy task in and of itself – to discuss next steps.
I relate this story not to seek sympathy, advice or criticism (I’m sure there are many smart readers who could identify mistakes I’ve made in this process), but to highlight an important truth about paying taxes in modern America: It shouldn’t be this hard.
Paying taxes is a solemn civic duty for all Americans. It’s how we fund the public structures – schools, roads, public safety, armed forces, courts, democratic institutions, environmental protections, social safety net – that knit together our vast and complex nation.
Indeed, a functioning tax system is a key indicator of overall societal health and well-being. One need only glance at any number of corrupt autocracies and failed states across the globe to see the kind of trouble, dysfunction and inequality to which the absence of a respected and well-resourced tax collection system often gives rise.
As a 2018 Pro Publica investigation entitled “How the IRS was gutted,” documented, declining IRS budgets not only rob public structures of the resources they need to function, they tend also to disproportionately enrich wealthy individuals and large corporations.
And it’s in light of these simple truths that the recent promise by U.S. House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy to seek the repeal of new legislation that boosted IRS funding is revealed as absurd and outrageous.
Sure, we get it. Few of us take pleasure in paying taxes. The prospect of earning cheap political points by slamming the IRS must seem irresistible to pols like McCarthy who understand this fact. And there’s no doubt that the IRS can be officious and bureaucratic. It’s understandable not to have the agency on one’s holiday card list.
But the notion that the path to improving IRS performance lies in slashing its funding is ridiculous.
As my personal experience over the past two-plus years makes plain, the IRS needs a lot more funding and staff – not less.
It’s undoubtedly true that some of the agency’s struggles have at times been the result of poor leadership, bureaucratic inertia, and our nation’s maddeningly complex tax code.
But the majority of IRS employees are good and dedicated public servants trying to do their best. And if the goal is to accurately process hundreds of millions of tax returns each year while efficiently serving the people who file them (as surely it ought to be), the IRS needs to employ enough people to, at a bare minimum, answer the doggone phone.
However superficially satisfying such a path might seem, McCarthy’s proposal to slap a new round of punitive budget cuts on the struggling agency isn’t the answer.
This column was originally published in NC Policy Watch.
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