The IRS budget and federal revenues:
Who will connect the dots?

The sequester strikes again

We’ve pointed out before that major news organizations are failing to connect the tax dots—between the sequester-caused cuts to the budget of the Internal Revenue Service and the country’s reduced ability to collect enough tax revenue. Not to mention the connection to tax fairness. And we’ve pointed out that there is no shortage of news pegs for getting into this story.

Well, another peg came along Tuesday that only one mainstream news organization decided to hang a piece on: a big protest rally by IRS workers in lower Manhattan, gathered in Federal Plaza. IRS employees are being furloughed for five days, and possibly seven, between now and the end of September. They say this not only will hurt them financially, but will hurt the country, too, since it will mean less tax revenue coming in to reduce the budget shortfall, and less help for people trying to resolve tax problems.

The honors for solid coverage go to Blake Ellis of CNNMoney, who interviewed and named some of the IRS workers at the rally, organized by the National Treasury Workers Union; not a single unnamed source in her piece. Ellis also took photos. She said she and her editors saw the rally as an opportunity to talk directly to IRS workers about the effects of the sequester. “To send a message to Congress,” she wrote, the union “has been holding protests across the country. Tuesday’s rally was the biggest so far, with hundreds of workers in attendance.”

The Washington Post’s Federal Worker page (B4) also carried a brief item, by national writer Lisa Rein, about the demonstrations. As for New York’s four major newspapers—The New York Times, the Daily News, the New York Post, and The Wall Street Journal—not a word. Wire services? Nada. New York City broadcast stations? As best as I can tell, only left-wing WBAI, part of the Pacific Foundation network, and a Spanish-language outlet, NTN24, covered the demonstration.

Labor’s press turned out. The Chief, a weekly labor newspaper, will run an article on Tuesday, editor Richard Steier told me. And WIN (Workers Independent News), a labor news service for 300 radio stations, ran a brief mention in its May 8 daily newscast (at 1:30). Tax Analysts (for which I write a column) sent a reporter, William Hoffman, who wrote a detailed piece. And the trade publication Accounting Today, ran a piece that editor Michael Cohn said he wrote from a National Treasury Employees Union press release.

But: What does it take to get mainstream journalists to connect cuts in the IRS budget to less revenue to run the nation? The IRS collects more than $200 for every dollar spent on it. Colleen Kelly, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, says that, at a minimum, the service brings in $7 for each additional dollar spent on its operations.

That suggests another news peg: journalists might ask business executives and management professors what they think of an enterprise that could bring in $7 for each added dollar of spending, but did not do so because its board (in this case the Congress) cut spending.

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David Cay Johnston covers fiscal and budget matters for CJR’s United States Project. He is a reporter with 46 years of experience, including 13 at The New York Times; a columnist for Tax Analysts; teaches tax and regulatory law at Syracuse University Law School; and is president of Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE). Follow him on Twitter @DavidCayJ. Tags: , , , ,