IRS chief John Koskinen speaks to reporters after testifying on his agency's budget.

IRS chief John Koskinen speaks to reporters after testifying on his agency's budget. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

IRS Asks Congress to Renew Expired Authority to Exceed Salary Cap

Authority was the most efficient path toward being able to attract highly-skilled technical expertise, commissioner says.

Internal Revenue Commissioner John Koskinen asked Congress Wednesday to reinstate in fiscal 2018 an old provision allowing the agency to quickly hire highly-skilled employees for important technical positions at salaries above the federal pay cap.

Reinstating the Streamline Critical Pay provision would help the IRS recruit and retain top talent without the cumbersome process required to exercise a similar authority now available to the agency, Koskinen said during a Senate hearing on the IRS budget. He noted the agency had effectively used the SCP authority between 1998 and 2013.

During those 15 years, the IRS hired 168 executive-level employees under SCP, more than half of whom dealt with information technology. After SCP authority expired in 2013, the agency became eligible for a new salary provision, the Critical Position Pay Authority, but according to a recent inspector general report, CPPA hasn’t been used to hire a single worker. With the six remaining SCP employees’ terms ending Sept. 30, the IRS will be forced to deal with constantly evolving technological and cybersecurity concerns shorthanded.

Both the SCP and CPPA take aim at an issue plaguing many agencies in the federal government: a lack of technical expertise. With the maximum salary for federal employees capped at $187,000, many highly-skilled individuals, especially in IT, opt for more lucrative careers in the private sector.

To combat this “brain drain,” agencies can use SCP and CPPA to boost salaries, increasing the appeal of government jobs. But with SCP employees leaving and the IRS failing to refill their positions with similarly qualified specialists under CPPA, the agency faces increasing cyber threats with a less skilled staff.  

The IRS experienced two data breaches in August 2015 and February 2016, each one exposing hundreds of thousands of taxpayer accounts to hackers. Koskinen highlighted the cybersecurity improvements IRS has made since then, but nevertheless stressed the benefits reinstating SCP would bring to the agency. Still, he said the IRS plans to submit three CPPA candidates to fill IT positions by November.

Koskinen is not alone in advocating for the SCP’s renewal. In response to the IG report, acting Human Capital Officer E. Faith Bell called the authority “a much better option” than CPPA. Bell blamed the agency’s lack of CPPA hires on the provision’s tedious approval process, which requires the Treasury Department, the Office of Personnel Management, and Office of Management and Budget to all sign off on new hires.

In addition to speeding up the hiring process, SCP also provides a greater monetary incentive for potential employees, offering a maximum annual salary of $240,100 compared to the CPPA’s maximum of $207,800.

Overall, few agencies use CPPA. The federal government allows for a total of 800 employees to earn increased salaries under the rule at any given time, but as of March 17, there were only four CPPA workers in total governmentwide. The IG report attributed this lack of use to a number of issues, but bureaucratic frustration stood out as the biggest concern.