An influential lawmaker on Congress’s tax writing committee is calling on the Internal Revenue Service to release a copy of video parodies it shot of Star Trek and Gilligan’s Island.
House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee chairman Charles Boustany, Jr., R-La., sent a letter Wednesday to IRS Acting Commissioner Steven T. Miller demanding a copy of the video parodies produced in the IRS’s television studio in New Carrollton, Md., claiming the studio may have cost taxpayers more than $4 million last year, according to a review of contracts.
Boustany noted that he had previously written to the IRS on February 11 requesting information on the production of two specific video segments; a Star Trek parody and a skit based on the television sitcom Gilligan’s Island.
The IRS provided a letter of response acknowledging the existence of the two videos. However, the agency refused to comply with Chairman Boustany’s request to turn over the videos to the committee.
Boustany has publicly requested that, in the interest of transparency, the IRS release the videos so that taxpayers can be assured that resources were used efficiently and in a manner keeping with the IRS’s core mission. The letter also calls on the IRS to produce a complete accounting of production expenditures at the studio.
“In your letter you state that the IRS’s goal of ‘mak[ing] voluntary compliance with the country’s tax laws as easy as possible,’ requires effective employee training,” Boustany wrote to Miller on Wednesday. “And further that the IRS’s production studio ‘allows the IRS to provide education and training to large audiences, both within the IRS and to the public, often while reducing travel and other costs associated with such programs.’
“This explanation sounds both plausible and reasonable,” Boustany added. “However, your agency’s refusal to timely produce copies of the IRS parody videos to the committee is unacceptable.”
Miller’s response letter admitted that the IRS spent $60,000 in taxpayer money to produce the two videos parodying the 1960s classic TV series. Boustany insisted that Miller’s offer to “make both videos available for viewing” was not responsive to his original request.
“While committee staff agreed to travel to the IRS and view the video as an initial matter, it continued to be the prerogative of the committee to insist that a copy of the video be provided,” said Bosutany. “Since then the request for the Star Trek video has been reiterated, but the IRS has refused to comply.”
In his letter to Boustany, Miller explained that one of the video segments opened a training and leadership conference in 2010 that “trained IRS employees on a wide variety of topics, including tax law updates, strategic issues, and employee management and safety issues.” The other segment was the “introductory portion of a 2011 video training series that discussed, among other topics, IRS tools to deliver quality taxpayer service.” It was not immediately clear which video was the Star Trek parody and which was the Gilligan’s Island spoof.
Miller pointed out that the IRS uses its video studio for various purposes, including a virtual town hall that more than 4,000 IRS managers across the country were able to attend last year to learn about budget issues and IRS priorities without needing to travel. The video studio is also used to produce YouTube videos to provide information to taxpayers and practitioners on topics such as the timing of tax refunds, do-it-yourself tax preparation, and how to obtain tax forms. The IRS’s YouTube videos have been viewed by taxpayers more than 4 million times, Miller noted.
The IRS, like other government agencies, has come under increasing pressure to cut expenses and has undergone two successive years of budget cuts. The budget sequester has forced further budget cuts in the IRS and other agencies, prompting the IRS to announce plans for unpaid furloughs for employees starting this summer, after tax season, along with cuts in travel and enforcement activities, as well as payments to whistleblowers, and refundable credits for certain tax-exempt bonds and the refundable portion of the Small Business Health Care Tax Credit (see IRS Update: Challenging Times to be Sure and Tax-Exempt Bonds and Small Business Health Care Tax Credit Take a Hit from Sequester).
Last week, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., urged the Treasury Department to find other ways to do the spending cuts. “The IRS should prioritize taxpayers rather than tax collectors and spenders,” he wrote in a letter to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. “While the IRS is furloughing the very workers who provide assistance to Americans paying taxes, the agency is failing to collect millions of dollars in taxes owed by federal employees, wasting more sending officials to conferences around the country, and subsidizing the export of American jobs along with the taxes they generate.”
Coburn has been sending a series of letters to various government agencies suggesting ways to cut wasteful spending. In his letter to the Treasury Department, he recommended reducing tax credits for wind farms, and cutting spending on unused BlackBerry smartphones and wireless air cards.
“Treasury can avoid the furlough of many critical employees or the reduction of taxpayer services during the height of tax season by decreasing non-essential travel and conferences, and reducing funding for outdated tax spending that is exporting jobs overseas,” he wrote. “Back taxes owed from government employees continues to rise, and the department should strongly consider working with the administration to find savings by suspending pay for those employees in debt to the Treasury. The IRS recently reported 311,566 federal employees and retirees owed more than $3.5 billion in unpaid taxes in 2011.”
The IRS is not the only government agency to have attracted unwanted attention from Congress for its video productions. Last year, top officials at the General Services Administration were forced to resign after videos surfaced showcasing lavish parties, conferences and awards ceremonies hosted by the agency in Las Vegas, including one video parodying the scene in the movie Office Space in which employees destroy computer equipment. Military officials were also embarrassed by video of a training exercise conducted in Paradise Point Resort near San Diego last Halloween in which U.S. Marines and Navy special operations forces battled a simulated “zombie apocalypse” with participants in make-up playing the roles of zombies.