Ron Edmonds/AP

IRS likely to get temporary commissioner when Shulman leaves

Election-year uncertainty works against long-term appointment, observers say.

By accident of the calendar, the five-year term of Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Doug Shulman ends the same month as the 2012 elections. Hence, specialists say, odds are the Obama administration will name an acting commissioner to tide the IRS over what promises to be a year-end congressional imbroglio over multiple issues of tax policy.

In comments to Government Executive following Shulman’s announcement this month that he did not wish to be appointed to a second term, a spokeswoman for Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, a longtime Finance Committee member, said, “it seems very unlikely to Sen. Grassley that the Senate would consider an IRS commissioner nominee before the next president is chosen -- the choice should be the next president’s, whether that’s President Obama or someone else.”

That prediction was echoed by Jeff Trinca, a vice president at Van Scoyoc Associates, who in the late 1990s was chief of staff for the National Commission on Restructuring the Internal Revenue Service. “The Republicans would block anybody that Obama sent up,” he said.

“As a practical matter, nothing will happen until the dust settles after the election,” Robert Kerr, senior director of government relations at the National Association of Enrolled Agents, agreed. “The lame-duck session will be a mess, a goat rodeo,” he added, mentioning the expiration of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts and various tax “extenders” as well as the “unpleasant" debt-ceiling vote.

The White House did not respond to queries. An IRS spokeswoman noted that a long-used process is in place for an acting commissioner to be named. Indeed, there have been 26 acting commissioners since the agency was created in 1862.

Shulman, who was nominated in November 2007 and sworn in as the 48th commissioner on March 24, 2008, followed a six-month stint as acting commissioner by Linda Stiff, previously deputy commissioner for operations and support. Before that, Kevin M. Brown, deputy commissioner for services and enforcement, held the job for slightly more than three months after Commissioner Mark Everson resigned in May 2007 to head the Red Cross.

“The question is not whether there will be an acting commissioner, but for how long,” Kerr said.

If past is precedent, the most likely acting commissioner would be either of the two current deputy commissioners: Steven T. Miller, who handles services and enforcement, or Beth Tucker, who oversees operations support.

Miller is a specialist in tax-exempt organizations and pensions who joined the IRS in 1993 after stints with Congress’ Joint Taxation Committee and in private practice. Tucker has held a variety of IRS jobs, including director of workforce initiatives.

Trinca said Miller “is very capable and well thought-of -- kind of a mixture of outsider and insider.” Regardless of who assumes the acting commissioner job, Washington’s “shenanigans” of policy zigzags “will force the IRS to guess what Congress is going to do, which is difficult for the agency” as it prepares for the filing season in early 2013, he said. “The issues for the agency have always been operational in nature,” Trinca noted. “They will move quickly on a lot of programming and probably come up with an interim solution into next year. The place is in good hands.”

Marcus Owens, an attorney with Caplin & Drysdale who was formerly director of the IRS' exempt organizations division, agreed the agency “has a deep bench in terms of management, with only two political appointees, so it will deal with Shulman’s departure without any issues.”

He added, “historically, the commissioners have been apolitical.” The interesting question, he said, is whether the administration selects someone in the community of seasoned tax professionals. That used to be the case, Owens said, but the past three -- Shulman, Charles Rossotti and Everson -- came from other fields.

“The confirmation process is so brutal that people are wary of it, [and presidents] haven’t been going for Washington types for a long time,” Owens said. The commissioner comes “under a lot of scrutiny and a lot of grief. It’s one of the toughest jobs the world for people who earn half of what they would make in the private sector.”

The agendas of many different groups will be affected by the eventual choice. Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said, “With so many vital fiscal issues facing our nation, it is imperative that the IRS have a leader who recognizes the need for and will advocate for a significant increase in funding for the IRS. The budget cuts of the last few years have left the IRS with insufficient staffing and resources to carry out the tax compliance and examination and collection work as efficiently and effectively as possible. As our nation struggles with deficit reduction and making difficult choices about budget cuts, effective operation of the agency that collects 93 percent of the nation’s revenue is critical.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of former IRS acting Commissioner Linda Stiff.