But the vaguely worded report, which was delivered more than a month later than the deadline Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen set, answered few of the questions that lawmakers have been lobbing at Yellen and IRS officials for months about specific budget forecasts and department hiring.
The IRS, which counted around 78,700 employees in 2021, says in the report that it plans to bring on nearly 20,000 new employees by the end of fiscal year 2024. That would include 7,239 hires in enforcement and 6,489 in taxpayer services and surely offset some attrition in the agency’s ranks from retirements.
The agency intends to spend $2.8 billion of the funding in 2023 and $5.4 billion in 2024 and, over a 10-year period, allot a hefty sum of $41.7 billion alone to scrutinizing the most sophisticated, high-income taxpayers.
However, the IRS did not provide essential information sought by lawmakers on the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees, such as how many employees the agency would like to hire long term for enforcement; how exactly the IRS will comply with a pledge by Yellen not to increase audits on those making less than $400,000; and what the agency forecasts to spend on operations, enforcement and customer service from fiscal years 2025 through 2031.
“That’s a real challenge — first to determine who is safe from the pledge without actually doing an audit to determine if their true (actual) income is below $400,000 and then second, to determine the appropriate ‘historical’ audit rate to apply to taxpayers with income below $400,000,” said Janet Holtzblatt of the left-leaning Tax Policy Center, in an email.
Treasury Deputy Secretary Wally Adeyemo defended the limited budget forecast in a call with reporters Thursday, saying technology advancements such as digital scanning of paper returns and automated phone services will improve agency productivity. That creates uncertainty around how many employees the IRS will ultimately need to hire, Adeyemo said.
“I hope that we can get better at forecasting, but I just think it’s good management and leadership practice” to refrain from projecting beyond fiscal year 2024, Werfel added.
Democrats were quick to praise the agency’s strategic plan.
“As laid out today, [the IRS is] already hard at work. More customer service staff are in place and this filing season has ushered in levels of customer service that haven’t been seen in recent memory,” said Ways and Means ranking member Richard Neal (D-Mass.), in a statement.
Omissions from the report could be no coincidence with Republicans primed to pounce on any details of the IRS’ bulked-up enforcement. When Treasury first asked for new money for the IRS, the department specified exactly how many workers the IRS would hire to crack down on tax cheats: 86,852.
Republicans have been using that figure ever since as grist for attack ads on Democrats.
“This spending plan is too little, too late. Treasury blew through their February 17th deadline to release this plan, which shows just how unserious they are about assuring American families and small businesses they won’t be targeted under the $80 billion tax enforcement scheme in the Inflation Act,” said Ways and Means member Adrian Smith (R-Neb.).
Democrats have fired back that the agency has been starved of resources to fairly enforce the tax code — with audit rates for millionaires and corporations falling by 77 percent and 44 percent, respectively, from 2010 to 2017 — and that much of the new hiring is needed to replace the two-thirds of the IRS workforce that will be eligible to retire in the next six years.
Here’s a look at what the report says about key elements of the IRS strategy:
The agency says it wants to leverage data analytics and technology to audit complex tax returns and plans on hiring the first waves of specialists focused on big companies, partnerships and high-income individuals in fiscal year 2023. The IRS will increase enforcement activities on cryptocurrencies and in areas where audits have declined significantly over the years, such as in estate, gift and employment taxation.
That will involve increasing staff in the Office of Chief Counsel, the legal adviser to the IRS based at the Treasury Department, to help litigate cases and issue clear guidance on tax laws. The agency insists ramped-up enforcement will apply to only those making more than $400,000.
“People who get W-2s or Social Security payments or have a small business should not be worried about some new wave of IRS audits. We’re taking that off the table,” Werfel said.
In a nod to lawmakers’ concerns about a Stanford study published earlier this year finding that Black taxpayers are three to five times more likely to be audited by the IRS, the agency also said it will create a team in fiscal year 2024 to look at whether enforcement activities disproportionately burden certain groups and address any disparities in tax administration according to gender, race and age.
The IRS wants to create online business accounts where taxpayers can let the agency know what communication methods they prefer — whether digital, phone or in-person — and hire more representatives to operate the phone lines and staff Taxpayer Assistance Centers.
Under the modernized system, the IRS said taxpayers will be able to access their entire account history, including notices and returns; make payments; and get status updates for their filings, all online. They would also receive personalized alerts from the IRS to better understand their tax obligations and eligibility for credits and deductions.
The IRS launched a new tool this filing season that allowed taxpayers to respond to the nine most common notices online, and the agency plans to add 72 more notices online by the end of fiscal year 2024.
“For many, letters from the IRS in the mail could be a thing of the past. For the first time, the IRS will help taxpayers identify potential mistakes before filing,” Werfel said.
The agency says it wants to make it easier for employees to review tax returns by implementing full digital scanning of paper forms — which National Taxpayer Advocate Erin Collins has called the “kryptonite” that jammed up the IRS during the pandemic — in the next five years and make that data easily accessible to employees in a centralized case management system.
The IRS is looking to replace old programming language in its aging computer systems and consolidate information on the cloud while improving cybersecurity to protect taxpayer privacy. Machine learning could be used to extract data and do advanced analytics on complex tax returns, the agency says.
The agency insists its hiring successes will not only depend on the prospects of higher pay for specialized employees, but also a cultural shift that gets workers excited about the IRS’s mission. It will prioritize recruiting from diverse and underrepresented talent pools and streamline the hiring process, which frequently gets bogged down in bureaucratic hurdles and discourages candidates from joining the IRS.
The agency will consider allowing employees to work from more locations around the U.S. to attract top-tier talent and employ gig workers on an as-needed basis. The IRS adds that it wants its employees to become far more data-savvy.
Brian Faler contributed to this report.