united states project

The big three miss a tax story

The IRS is furloughing workers. For a lot of reasons, that's news
April 23, 2013

Okay, it was a big news week. There was the tragedy in Boston. In West, TX, too. And yes, there was important maneuvering in Washington around some rather large issues, like guns and immigration.

Still: The temporary closure of an entire federal agency ought to be news. Especially if the agency in question is the one that virtually every American deals with, and probably just did deal with on tax day last week.

The news? The IRS will shut down on five days over the period from May 24 to August 30, and possibly two additional days before the fiscal year ends on September 30. All this is due to across-the-board spending restraints imposed by what we call sequestration. The story leaked out Friday morning and was confirmed later that day. But as of Tuesday it had yet to make its way into print editions of USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, or The New York Times, the three largest circulation newspapers in the country. (The online Journal did run a brief blog item on Monday afternoon by its tax reporter, Laura Saunders.)

The IRS did not announce the shutdowns. Instead the agency sent an email to every employee on Friday morning. Not until afternoon did the agency, responding to questions, confirm the authenticity of the email, and acknowledge the shutdowns. The move means people cannot get problems resolved on those five, or perhaps seven, days. Wage earners will see no effect on their checks because the system of taking taxes out of their pay in advance is automated.

But for business owners, investors, landlords, and others whom Congress trusts to self-report, it will mean more opportunities to short the government because audit and collection efforts will be reduced. The reduction is the equivalent of one less week of work out of the 15 remaining after the first shutdown in late May.

I am happy to note that the IRS shutdown was reported on Friday by many news organizations, including The Associated Press, Bloomberg, Fox Business News, Reuters,
and me, among others.

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The Los Angeles Times also reported the shutdown news on Friday, but Roger Vincent’s brief story appeared only online, not in the print or the e-replica. On Monday, The Washington Post reported the news, but buried it near the end of a 1,150-word piece by Steve Vogel about federal furloughs, an issue of intense interest in the Post circulation area. Vogel’s piece got a Page One reefer.

Hardly anyone, though, reported that on May 7 there will be a protest in lower Manhattan by IRS employees, whose union leaders say that after three years without a pay raise, growing demands from Congress, and rules that often block them from looking into evidence of tax cheating that extends beyond pre-negotiated terms of the audit, they are fed up.

As for the big three papers, nothing yet in print. We remain hopeful.

Why? It matters. The entire federal budget battle, at its core, revolves around revenue. And nearly all of that revenue comes through the IRS, which is both the tax police department of Washington and its collection office. Less work time almost certainly means less revenue. And less revenue means either more pressure to cut spending or larger deficits. So a shutdown at the IRS is this: news.

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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.