National Press Club

IRS Commissioner shares insights on 2017 tax filing season, hopes for future of tax code

April 5, 2017 | By Talia Schmidt |

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen holds up a cookie-copy of the IRS Tax Form during National Press Club Luncheon on April 5, 2017. .

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen holds up a cookie-copy of the IRS Tax Form during National Press Club Luncheon on April 5, 2017. .

Photo/Image: Marshall H. Cohen

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen spoke to a full house at a National Press Club Luncheon April 5 about his pride in the successful tax filing season every year of his almost-four-year tenure and his desire to see the tax code simplified.

Koskinen joked that while the IRS is often seen as an unpopular government entity, his employees put in an incredible amount of work preparing for tax season. “I don’t take the process for granted anymore [like I did before I was commissioner],” Koskinen said. “Tax filing season doesn’t happen automatically or by accident. Our employees spend months working on it beforehand.”

The sheer size of the numbers continue to amaze him, Koskinen said. For instance, so far this tax filing season, the IRS has received 93 million individual 1040 forms.

“By the time we’re done, we’ll have issued $300 billion in refunds,” Koskinen noted. “The average size of a refund this year was $2,900,” he continued. “We recognize for many households, that’s the biggest paycheck they’ll see all year.”

If only it weren’t so complicated to actually file for a tax return. Koskinen said he’s incredibly proud of the work his employees like Carolyn Tavenner have done to improve the system for the general public. Tavenner helped to create the 1040EZ form, a single page required for people filing their taxes.

“It’s one page, fewer than 20 lines, and you can fill it out in almost no time,” Koskinen boasted. “It’s saved people millions of hours.”

Other employees he paid homage to included Margaret Johnson, who has spent her life working in public service because she was inspired by her mother, who worked as a mathematician for NASA, a story told in the recent film, "Hidden Figures".

“IRS employees have public service in their DNA,” Koskinen said.

Koskinen remains optimistic and pleased with his employees’ good nature, despite the agency’s severe lack of staff capacity. In fact, he shared that the IRS is still stuck in its hiring freeze from 2011 and struggles to replace IRS employees.

Furthermore, the workforce has shrunk by 17,000 people since 2010. That’s equivalent to losing 50 employees a week for seven years. And all while the number of individual tax returns being filed has increased.

“The tax code is now the most complicated it’s ever been,” Koskinen lamented.

“There are three types of people,” Koskinen said, quoting a former IRS commissioner. There are those who are compliant, those who are trying to be compliant, and those who are trying to evade filing their taxes. He said that above all, he wants to make sure that everyone in the first two categories has the information they need to file successfully and smoothly.

In fact, after meeting with the Canadian commissioner, Koskinen decided this year to implement and allow scheduled appointments so people wouldn’t have to wait in long, crazy lines to get help with filing their taxes at walk-in centers. It worked. “We’ll leave the long lines to Apple for the rollout of the next generation of their iPhone,” he joked.

IRS employees have started being smarter with customers on the phone by telling them what forms to bring to their appointment. A lot of times -- in fact, in half of all instances -- Koskinen said that when people call with questions about their in-person appointment, the employee helping them on the phone can resolve their issue, eliminating the need for them to come in altogether.

Koskinen, who will “retire” (he says he already failed at retirement twice) in November, said he fears that the new budget cuts will negatively impact their work at the IRS. “When we get a cut, it has to come from somewhere,” he said.

Asked whether the IRS has any plans to do away with the 1040 form or simplify the tax code, Koskinen is game: “Everyone at the IRS would be delighted if you could make the tax system simpler.”