(CNSNews.com) - "I find it unacceptable to preside over an agency that has no choice but to have such a bad performance record, because it doesn't have people answering the phones," Treasury Secretary Jack Lew told Congress on Tuesday.
"You go to the call centers, and there are empty seats. That's why the phones don't get answered." He called it "terrible."
Lew was responding to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who warned that "people are going to continue to try to cheat this government" if word gets out that IRS manpower and funding are diminished.
"Until we can devise a government that does not involve the collection of taxes, we owe it to taxpayers to treat them fairly and in a courteous way," Durbin said.
"What we have done to the Internal Revenue Service in terms of their taxpayer services by virtue of cutting back dramatically on appropriations, is a sad commentary on Congress' relationship with the IRS.
"And I think we owe it to the American taxpayers, who are doing their best to comply with the law and do everything they're required to do, to treat them with more courtesy aand respect and efficiency.
Durbin referred to testimony from Russell George, the Treasury Department inspector general for tax administration, who pointed to long wait times for customers calling the IRS toll-free numbers.
Most taxpayers continue to use the telephone as the primary method to contact the IRS, George told the committee in his opening statement. He noted that for the 2015 filing season -- as of May 2, 2015, the IRS reported that there were approximately 83.2 million attempts to contact the IRS by calling the various toll-free customer service telephone lines.
IRS agents answered approximately 8.3 million calls in that period and provided a 37.6 percent level of service with a 23.5 minute average speed of answer. This compares with the 70.8 percent level of service for the 2014 tax filing year. (Level of service measures the relative success rate of taxpayers who call for help.)
Durbin, repeating those numbers, told Lew, "There's no senator or congressman who could get re-elected if they tried this in their home states with their constituencies."
Durbin said the poor customer service also raises problems with compliance: "If the word is not out and about that there are cops on the beat, we know what's going to happen. People are going to continue to try to cheat this government.
"The overwhelming majority of people are doing their legal best to pay their taxes, and we owe it to them to make sure everyone pays their legal share of taxes in this country."
IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, who testified after Lew, thanked the Republican-led Congress for approving $290 million in additional funding for the IRS for Fiscal Year 2016, which ends on Sept. 30. That $290 million increase is less than half the amount that had been requested for FY 2016, but Koskinen called it a step in the right direction.
He noted this is the first time in six years that the IRS has received "significant additional funding."
Koskinen also told the Appropriations subcommittee that the IRS has lost more than 3,000 call center representatives over the last five years: "You don't have people, they're not going to be able to answer the phone."
But this year, thanks to the extra funding from Congress, he said the IRS has been able to add a thousand people. He estimated that level of service at the call centers is expected to be around 47-50 percent for the current tax filing year as opposed to 37.6 percent in 2015.
President Obama's FY 2017 budget proposal for the IRS requests a base funding increase of $530 million above the FY 2016 enacted level.
And if that money comes through, "We think we could get to a level (of service) next year for the entire year of 70 percent. Our goal would be to go back to where we were in the mid 2000s, where our level of service was 80 percent and the waiting time was less than three minutes.
"In other words, everyone ought to be able to call the IRS and get an immediate answer, get someone who is trained to answer their question. We're moving in that direction, thanks to the additional funding," Koskinen said.
The $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill approved by the Republican-led Congress in December said the extra $290 million for the IRS could be spent only on customer service, fraud reduction, and cybersecurity. The omnibus included provisions barring performance bonuses for IRS employees accused of misconduct or failure to pay their own taxes. And it also limited IRS spending on conferences and videos.
Congress also made it clear that "None of the funds made available in this Act may be used by the Internal Revenue Service to target groups for regulatory scrutiny based on their ideological beliefs."