Alice In Washington Wonderland

Monday - 6/23/2014, 2:00am EDT

One definition of the "law" of unintended consequences is that whatever you do may turn out to produce a very different and unforeseen outcome from what you had intended. Congress, which thinks the solution to every problem is a new law, does it all the time.

Example: Thanks to sequestration and budget cuts, two agencies with critical ties to the public — the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration — are getting smaller, slower and less efficient. That includes helping taxpayers, going after big bucks owed Uncle Sam and having fewer resources and people to deal with our fast-aging population.

At one time, politicians considered Social Security the third rail (like in a subway) of American politics. As in, touch it and you die!

But, over the last several years, SSA has eliminated nearly 11,000 employees and cut field offices even as Baby Boomers age out and come due for benefits. Congress demands that places like the SSA and IRS do more business online, although many of those agencies' customers aren't computer savvy. Neither are a lot of members of Congress. Fortunately for them they have lots of very smart, tech savvy help (paid for by the taxpayers) to help them. They also get special assistance when they or a family member have tax or Social Security problems.

The IRS lost about 5,900 employees in 2013 primarily because of automatic sequestration cuts. IRS workers were also furloughed at a time of greater workload and higher potential revenue. NTEU President Colleen Kelley warned the agency was "at risk," and National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson said customer service has slumped and many telephone calls for help to the IRS go unanswered.

While the IRS and SSA shrink, rattle and roll, Washington-based politicians have set the stage for an expanded role for tiny agencies like the Merit Systems Protection Board. The MSPB is little-known outside of government because its job is to handle in-house labor and HR issues. Normally, it deals with 5,000 to 6,000 cases a year. But thanks to the furloughs imposed by Congress, it had 32,000 appeals last year. The fact that none of them has yet been decided in favor of an employee doesn't change the fact that they are in the pipeline. Weighing the salary money "saved" vs. the loss of productivity, services and revenue not collected by the IRS, the question is whether we can afford another round of furloughs.

Smaller operations, like the Merit Systems Protection Board and the Patent and Trademark Office, might have to grow dramatically. The MSPB might have to expand to handle tens of thousands of appeals from feds furloughed in the future, or those denied raises or who fall afoul of pending quick firing plans.


NEARLY USELESS FACTOID:
By Julia Ziegler

The IRS maintains a Tax Quotes page on its website that highlights quotes famous people have made about taxes over the years. It was last updated March 10, 2014, according to IRS.gov.


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