Nonpartisan, apolitical IRS prepares to blame the GOP for delayed tax refunds

The IRS has been bled white, complained Commissioner John Koskinen.

Budget cuts to the agency, he adds, have forced the IRS to eliminate almost all overtime, implement hiring freezes, and furlough nonessential operatives. It will also likely mean a reduction in taxpayer services like audits and, yes, even the processing of refund checks. And Koskinen wants the public to know that it’s all the GOP’s fault.

“Everybody’s return will get processed,” the IRS commissioner told reporters on Thursday. “But people have gotten very used to being able to file their return and quickly get a refund. This year we may not have the resources.”

“Budget cuts backed by congressional Republicans could delay tax refunds in 2015,” The Hill reported. “Taxpayers trying to reach the IRS will have only about a 50-50 shot at getting their call answered — and those that do can expect to be on hold for awhile, Koskinen said.”

Koskinen painted a dire picture of the fallout from the $346 million cut that the IRS received in the recent year-end spending deal. Because of a government-wide pay raise next year, the IRS will have to pay out an extra $250 million in salaries and other expenses — creating in essence, Koskinen said, a $600 million hole for the agency to fill.

The Associated Press, however, reported that the IRS is largely understaffed and underfunded today as a result of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

“For the first time, taxpayers will have to report on their tax returns whether they have health insurance,” An AP report observed on Thursday. “Millions of taxpayers who are receiving tax credits to help pay insurance premiums will have to report them as well.”

Some Republicans in Congress have vowed to cut IRS funding as a way to hurt implementation of the health care law. Koskinen has said it won’t work.

He said the IRS is required to enforce the law, so other areas will have to be cut, including taxpayer services and enforcement.

So, the beloved IRS will blame Republicans for the taxpayer’s woes, and Republicans will blame the adored Affordable Care Act. Sounds like a recipe for a political stalemate, right?

Maybe not. A positively heartrending piece in Politico on Thursday warned of the potential for what Koskinen said was a forthcoming IRS shutdown. The commissioner tugged at heartstrings when he warned that America’s most loathed and distrusted law enforcement agency might have to reduce its workload.

“People call it furloughs; I view it as: Are we going to have to shut the place down? And at this point, that will be the last thing we do, … but there is no way we can say right now that that won’t happen,” Koskinen told reporters at a Thursday press conference on the upcoming tax season. “Again, I would stress that would be the last option.”

He said a shutdown would mean the IRS would “close the agency for a day, two days, whatever days it would take to close the gap that we can’t otherwise close in a reasonable way.”

The agency estimates each closed day would save $29 million.

Now here is a government shutdown the public can get behind.

The mammoth tax collection agency is planning on a partial shuttering of operations over a cut of $346 million. The IRS now operates on $10.9 billion, $1.5 billion less than what the White House had requested. Over this reduction in funding, the agency has to virtually close shop, cease audits and evasion investigations, and delay refunds? That will seem like a drastic course of action for any federal agency.

Moreover, according to the IRS, the tax collection agency is routinely strained to its breaking point.

“A surge in calls accompanied the rebates that Mr. Bush sponsored in 2001, straining the ability to answer calls from people with tax problems and causing other logistical problems,” read a New York Times report.

Following the release of stimulus checks in 2007, the IRS also found itself unable to process refund checks in a timely manner. “The checks will be in the mail — eventually,” The Times added.

“Compared to the 2007 Filing Season, taxpayers experienced longer wait times to speak with an assistor and spent more time on hold once they were connected to an assistor,” the Treasury Department wrote in its own defense in 2008.

While the majority of taxpayers do receive refunds, few of those refund recipients depend on that money for essentials. The often unpredictable timing of the release of those funds by the IRS prevents that kind of planning.

Given the history of the IRS’s regular struggles with refunding taxpayers and the meagerness of the budget cuts which are forcing a veritable shutdown on the agency, Koskinen’s nakedly political appeal for sympathy is directed entirely toward the press. He hopes they will forget context, eschew research, and stenograph both his pleas for empathy and his condemnation of the rotten GOP members of Congress who have robbed his agency of its proper funding.

He may find willing partners in the media, but his strategy suffers from a fatal flaw: Everyone hates the IRS.