As Tax Season Starts, a Beleaguered I.R.S. Looks to Bolster Customer Service

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration aims to significantly improve customer service at the Internal Revenue Service when 2023 tax season begins Monday, a pivotal time for an agency at the center of a political fight over $80-plus. billion in additional funding given to him by Congress. last year.

As tax filing season begins, the IRS is rushing to prepare 5,000 newly hired agents to answer the phones and answer taxpayer questions. It is also implementing new automated systems and staffing its traditional taxpayer assistance centers.

The updates are intended to highlight the initial impact of the money it received through last year’s Cut Inflation Act legislation and to allay fears stoked by Republicans that the funds will be used to increase audits of Americans. middle class and small businesses.

“These enhancements show how we are modernizing both technology and customer service to bring the IRS into the 21st century,” Wally Adeyemo, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, said during a briefing with reporters.

The money comes when the IRS has struggled to meet its most basic responsibilities. As of the end of 2022, the agency still had a backlog of nine million tax returns that needed to be processed. Only 13 percent of the 173 million calls reached an IRS representative last year, and the average wait time was 29 minutes.

A report from the National Taxpayer Advocate this month expressed optimism that there was “light at the end of the tunnel” at the IRS, but said the agency still needed major improvements after years of neglect and funding cuts.

Treasury officials say the IRS is trying to reduce the time callers spend on hold with the agency to 15 minutes and are hopeful that improved automated systems and more staff will make it easier for people to contact a representative. The agency is also initiating plans to automatically start scanning paper tax returns and implement a system to make it easier for taxpayers to respond to IRS written notices online instead of by mail.

At the request of Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen, the IRS must produce a plan detailing how it plans to use the $80 billion by February. It is not clear if the Treasury Department will make the report public at that time.

Since taking control of the House of Representatives this month, Republicans have made scrutiny of the IRS a priority and passed legislation to rescind much of the $80 billion just appropriated. They have taken advantage of plans to bolster the agency’s enforcement capacity to scare taxpayers away from being audited or harassed.

President Biden has vowed to veto any legislation that reduces IRS funding and has accused Republicans of trying to make it easier for the wealthy to avoid paying taxes.

But as the fight over IRS funding continues, the Biden administration is emphasizing ways it intends to make the agency more responsive and user-friendly.

“Our goal this tax season is to effectively and efficiently serve as many taxpayers as possible,” said Mr. Adeyemo.