National Taxpayer Advocate Nina E. Olson’s annual report to Congress highlights the combination of an expanding IRS workload and declining resources as the most serious problem facing taxpayers.
The result, the report noted, is inadequate taxpayer service, erosion of taxpayer rights, and reduced tax compliance. Olson expressed her continuing concern that the IRS’s expanding use of automated processes to adjust tax liabilities is causing harm to taxpayers and recommended that Congress enact a comprehensive Taxpayer Bill of Rights.
“The overriding challenge facing the IRS is that its workload has grown significantly in recent years, while its funding is being cut,” Olson said in releasing the report. “This is causing the IRS to resort to shortcuts that undermine fundamental taxpayer rights and harm taxpayers—and at the same time reduces the IRS’s ability to deliver on its core mission of raising revenue.”
The sharp increase in the IRS’s workload is due to several factors, including the increasing complexity of the Tax Code and the code’s frequent changes, the need to provide service to an increasingly diverse taxpayer population, the IRS’s increasing responsibility for administering economic and social policies, a surge in refund fraud and tax-related identity theft, and the implementation of new third-party information reporting requirements.
To keep up with its rising workload, the IRS is increasingly relying on automated data-matching procedures to identify potentially inaccurate claims and adjust tax liabilities. However, automated processes are inherently imperfect, so the taxpayer’s return position often turns out to be correct. Moreover, taxpayers subject to audits are entitled to established taxpayer rights protections. But an increasing number of IRS adjustments are not classified as audits, so these protections often do not apply. Throughout the report, Olson describes IRS practices that “harm taxpayers by acting on assumptions of noncompliance arrived at by automated processes that do not solicit, encourage, or allow taxpayer response.”
Olson noted that under a program designed to detect returns relating to a scheme known as “Operation Mass Mail,” the IRS declined to process about 900,000 returns in 2011. In most situations where the IRS identifies questionable claims, it sends notices to the affected taxpayers to give them an opportunity to contest the IRS’s position. In some cases, however, the IRS simply “auto-voided” the returns, providing the individuals who had submitted them with no notice of the IRS action. Yet in tens of thousands of these cases, the IRS later marked the accounts with a code that indicated it had erred and the return had been submitted by a legitimate taxpayer. The report expresses concern that this “auto-void” procedure violates fundamental notions of due process, as individuals whom the government suspects of fraud—a serious charge—normally are given notice and an opportunity to respond before the government takes adverse action.
The report says inadequate funding for the IRS contributes to many of these problems and means the IRS cannot adequately pursue unpaid tax liabilities. The report points out that the IRS functions as the “accounts receivable” department of the federal government, as it collects more than 90 percent of all federal revenue and therefore provides the funds that make almost all other federal spending possible. On a budget of $12.1 billion, the IRS collected $2.42 trillion in fiscal year 2011. In other words, for every $1 that Congress appropriated for the IRS, the IRS collected about $200 in return. However, current federal budgeting rules do not take into account that a dollar appropriated for the IRS typically generates substantially more than a dollar in additional tax collections, leaving the agency substantially underfunded to do its job and limiting its ability to close the tax gap and thereby help reduce the federal budget deficit.
In light of the IRS’s unique role as the federal revenue collector, the National Taxpayer Advocate recommends that Congress develop new budget procedures designed to fund the IRS at a level that will enable it to meet taxpayer needs and maximize tax compliance, with due regard for protecting taxpayer rights and minimizing taxpayer burden.
The report also urges Congress to codify a Taxpayer Bill of Rights that would clearly list the major rights and responsibilities of taxpayers.
“The U.S. tax system is based on a social contract between the government and its taxpayers,” Olson wrote. “Taxpayers agree to report and pay the taxes they owe and the government agrees to provide the service and oversight necessary to ensure that taxpayers can and will do so.”
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