House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee Chairman John Lewis, D-Ga., criticized the IRS’s handling of taxpayer phone calls at a hearing that reviewed IRS operations and budget proposals, with IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman in attendance.

“Overall, I think the agency has done a good job,” acknowledged Lewis. “However, there is always room for improvement. I do not think it is fair that 5 million taxpayers received busy signals when they called this year for help, and almost 18 million taxpayers hung up before getting through. If the agency needs additional resources to meet its customer service mission, we need to know that.”

The Government Accountability Office released a report in conjunction with the hearing that provided interim results for the IRS’s 2009 filing season. The GAO said the IRS had reduced its goal for telephone access to taxpayer assistance. The IRS set a 2009 goal for the percentage of taxpayers seeking assistor help who actually receive it at 77 percent.

However, the IRS’s actual performance averaged 66 percent through May 9, although it fluctuated. In February, for example, an unexpectedly high call volume drove down the percentage of callers seeking assistor help who were able to get through. One factor contributing to the high call volume was stimulus-related questions.

Shulman defended the IRS’s assistance in his prepared testimony. “The drop … is partially due to the number of taxpayers calling to obtain their prior-year adjusted gross income, which is used to satisfy the signature requirements when e-filing a current year return,” he said. “More taxpayers were also calling regarding math errors and refund issues … and questions generated by the economic downturn and the [American Recovery and Reinvestment Act]. It should also be noted the lower [level of service] is due in part to voluntary hang-ups. IRS added an ‘estimated wait time’ feature this year so taxpayers could choose whether to wait to speak to an assistor, or hang up and call back at a less busy or more convenient time.”

The GAO report also found that compared to last year, the number of taxpayers who requested a refund anticipation loan from their tax preparers declined by 15 percent to 8.4 million. However, the number of refund anticipation checks, which are not loans, but are taxpayer refunds deposited into a temporary bank account from which return preparation fees can be paid, increased by 10 percent to 11.5 million.