Damn it Jim, I’m a tax collector, not a filmmaker

After years of appropriations cuts, and a disastrous Star Trek-parody, the IRS budget is $600 million short of what it was 6 years ago

The Internal Revenue Service building as seen on Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2016. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The Internal Revenue Service building as seen on Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2016. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 22, 2019 at 2:30pm

Beam me up, Mr. Speaker, as the late former House lawmaker and convicted felon James A. Traficant Jr. used to say. Congress is finally going easier on the IRS after five years of funding restrictions intended to prevent another onscreen voyage to the “planet NoTax.”

After a pricey Star Trek parody filmed by IRS employees came to light in 2013, the GOP House set its phasers to vaporize the prospect of such videos being made in the future, putting funding prohibitions into five consecutive spending bills beginning in fiscal 2014.

But the provision was beamed out of the fiscal 2019 omnibus spending bill signed into law Feb. 15. That doesn’t mean IRS officials can suit up in USS Enterprise gear on camera again, however. The agency has “tightened their internal policies” regarding videos which has “rendered this provision irrelevant,” according to a House Appropriations Committee spokesman.

The Senate had kept the provision in its fiscal 2019 Financial Services spending bill, but House Republicans removed it in their version of the bill. During negotiations, the House won out.

Besides time and stricter internal policies, another factor is that former IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, appointed by President Barack Obama and the target of impeachment efforts by House Republicans, was still at the agency’s helm for part of fiscal 2018, the last year the funding prohibition was in place. President Donald Trump’s nominee, Charles Rettig, was sworn in on the first day of fiscal 2019.

Besides scathing news stories, including widely reported comments from the original Captain Kirk, William Shatner, blasting the waste of taxpayer dollars, the U.S. Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration investigated the matter.

The ensuing report criticized not just $50,000 in undocumented expenditures on filmmaking, most for the Star Trek parody, but an overly expensive $4.1 million 2010 conference in Anaheim, Calif., where the video was first aired. The IRS responded to the May 2013 inspector general’s report, saying it had already created an internal review board, called the Video Editorial Board, “ensuring that internal and external videos have a sound business purpose.”

The same language barring the IRS from making unapproved videos was in spending bills for each year between 2014 to 2018: “None of the funds made available to the Internal Revenue Service by this Act may be used to make a video unless the Service-Wide Video Editorial Board determines in advance that making the video is appropriate, taking into account the cost, topic, tone, and purpose of the video.”

When asked for comment about the funding prohibition’s removal, the IRS said in a statement to CQ that the “work of the IRS video review board has been a success since its inception nearly six years ago, providing important oversight and review of the agency’s work in this area.”

The videos and their expense came to light in the same year as allegations that the IRS had targeted nonprofit groups with conservative ideologies. The IRS paid for that year of bad press.

Appropriations for the agency were slashed from $11.8 billion to $11.2 billion in fiscal 2014, which was the year the provision for the Video Editorial Board approval was first added. Appropriations were cut to $10.9 billion in fiscal 2015.

Removing the temporary effects of general provisions and allotments to the agency to implement the 2017 tax code overhaul, baseline appropriations stayed flat through fiscal 2017, grew $166 million in fiscal 2018 and by another $115 million in the fiscal 2019 omnibus.

Despite these signs of congressional forgiveness, appropriations for the agency are still nearly $600 million lower than six years ago. And Republican ire toward the agency was in view Jan. 30, when all but eight Republicans voted against extending a proposed 2.6 percent pay raise for federal civilian workers to the IRS. Similar measures to make sure Secret Service and NASA employees would be covered passed by voice votes.