Central to Americans’ confidence in our government is their confidence in our tax-collection system. Unfortunately, the Internal Revenue Service has not always earned that trust, undermining this system of voluntary compliance and taxpayer engagement. Fortunately, this has been a bipartisan issue in the past, and we believe a bipartisan proposal exists to once again solve the problem and make the agency more responsive and accountable to taxpayers.
About 20 years ago the IRS had similar difficulties. Calls went unanswered by the thousands, and calls that were answered often were incorrect or unhelpful.
The American public had lost faith in the IRS, and sweeping changes were needed to get it back on track. As a result, Congress created the National Commission on Restructuring the IRS.
We co-chaired that IRS commission, and we convened some of the best and brightest minds across industries and political parties to work with us on restructuring the IRS to better serve taxpayers. We published our findings and recommendations in a comprehensive report, which served as the basis for the IRS Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998, the first major overhaul the agency had undergone in 40 years.
The law created dozens of new taxpayer rights, including the right to an independent appeal of an IRS decision. It restructured how the IRS was governed, by establishing an independent IRS Oversight Board to add needed experience, expertise and continuity to review and approve the agency’s budget requests and strategic direction. It also refocused the IRS’s long-term customer service and IT modernization strategies to better serve the basic needs of taxpayers.
Unfortunately, that period of sustained improvement at the IRS has unraveled in recent years. For example, according to the Taxpayer Advocate, the percentage of calls that the IRS answered bottomed out at a staggeringly low 15 percent in 2015. In addition, nearly 40 percent of taxpayers that called the IRS in 2017 felt they were not able to resolve their issues with just one call.
Moreover, despite the efforts 20 years ago to include an independent appeal of a decision, appeals have declined because the IRS has chosen to settle more cases in tax court — at a higher cost to taxpayers. Finally, while the 1998 law intended the IRS Oversight Board to help set long-term strategic goals for the IRS, the goals stopped being met, and by the end of 2015, the board had failed to maintain enough members and has been shut down.
Much as we did 20 years ago, we believe more substantial reforms are needed, and we believe any solution should empower taxpayers of all types and income levels.
We support legislation called the Protecting Taxpayers Act that will do this by focusing on strengthening protections for taxpayers, ensuring an effective taxpayer appeals process, revitalizing the Oversight Board and IRS strategic direction on customer service and IT, improving IRS taxpayer service training and helping low-income taxpayers interact with the IRS. This is a bipartisan proposal that will enact commonsense reforms to help the IRS better serve American taxpayers and achieve its critical mission.
As Congress moves forward with new rounds of IRS reforms, it is important to reflect on what we learned 20 years ago and apply those lessons to help the IRS once again become a more responsive, effective agency that truly serves the people’s interests. It’s time to go through another IRS reform process to help restore taxpayers’ faith in America’s tax collector.
Rob Portman is a United States senator from Ohio. Bob Kerry served as the 35th governor of Nebraska from 1983 to 1987 and as a United States senator from Nebraska from 1989 to 2001.