IRS Commissioner John Koskinen warns that budget cuts could force the agency to shut down for a couple of days.

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen warns that budget cuts could force the agency to shut down for a couple of days. AP file photo

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Commissioner Koskinen denies he is exaggerating agency budget woes.

Internal Revenue Service employees likely will not know until this summer whether they’re in for a one- or two-day shutdown due to fiscal 2015 budget cuts, Commissioner John Koskinen told reporters on Thursday.

Koskinen has twice in recent weeks warned that as tax filing season starts Jan. 20, he will consider the need to eventually furlough employees due to Congress’ $346 million slice out of what is now a $10.9 billion budget.

A furlough is a “last resort,” Koskinen said, and he would want to give employees adequate advance notice. But the decision will hinge on how the agency fares during the filing season that officially ends on April 15, during which the commissioner hopes to save $60 million by not paying overtime.

“I don’t want to violate the anti-Deficiency Act” or alarm employees unnecessarily, he said. The decision is “a balancing act” for which he is keeping in touch with the National Treasury Employees Union.

Koskinen dismissed a reporter’s suggestion that his warnings of weakened compliance enforcement and long telephone wait times for taxpayers seeking help are a scare tactic, sometimes referred to inside the Beltway as a “Washington Monument” strategy of threatening dramatic visible consequences to Congress’s frequent budgetary stalemates. “If everything stays the same as it is now,” he said, the furloughs would happen.

One thing that would lighten the load on diminished staff, Koskinen said, is for more taxpayers to use the IRS website for answers to questions, including the Where’s My Refund? feature that updates a return’s status. “It would be doing us a favor, a contribution to the public good,” if fewer taxpayers needed to call for help, he said.

The commissioner also responded to a question about the frequency of firings at the IRS, saying 1,000 employees have been dismissed in recent years for cause, mostly for being delinquent on their own taxes and violations of taxpayer privacy.