Telephone Woes & the IRS

You know how it goes. You sit for a bit, staring at the phone, maybe even biting your nails a bit. Should you call? Is it too early?

You take a deep breath, pick up the phone and dial. It rings and rings. No answer. You bite your lip and hang up. And then you worry: did you do something wrong? Did you misinterpret something?

So let me clear it up right now: it’s not you. This year, the IRS just isn’t that into you.

The National Taxpayer Advocate released its annual report to Congress yesterday – and the results don’t paint a pretty picture of what’s happening at the IRS. The bottom line for 2009: IRS is overwhelmed and understaffed.

The IRS reported that it had received an unprecedented numbers of calls from taxpayers trying to understand more complicated laws put into place by Congress over the past two years. The IRS handled twice the number of toll-free calls in the January-June period of 2008 than in 2007 (118 million versus 57 million). They’re expecting a similar volume of calls this year.

As a result, by their own admission, the IRS expects that only 70% of the people who call this year will actually get through to an agent. For those lucky 70%, the average wait time will be 12 minutes (*insert dubious sounding coughing here*).

Actually, I’m understating the case – by a whopping 1%. The goal for 2010 is to answer 71% of calls, down from a high of 87% in 2004.

IRS spokeswoman Michelle Eldridge says that the IRS “is committed to providing the best possible service to every taxpayer. The bottom line is we have answered millions more phone calls in the last two years than ever before.” But National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson calls the level of service “unacceptable” and notes that the lack of accessibility is the “number one most serious problem for taxpayers.”

It’s easy enough to grumble at the IRS for what appears to be a lack of commitment to service. And hey, I’m no fan of hold times at the Service. But I think blaming the IRS is misguided in this instance. The real villain in all of this is Congress. Passing sound-byte legislation (you know, temporary laws to pacify voters) is becoming more and more popular. It’s also over-complicating the Tax Code at an alarming rate. How much so? Olson’s office reports that the number of words in the Tax Code is now 3.7 million, and over the past eight years, changes to the Tax Code have been made at a rate of more than one a day. There were 500 changes in 2008 alone. That’s not the IRS, it’s Congress.

So, if you’re one of those folks who doesn’t get through to the IRS help line this year, don’t take your anger out on them. Hang up and dial your Congressional official. Cause Congress in 2010? They’re totally into you.