My dad was an armed IRS agent, gun-toting for good reason. He helped bust mob figures across northern Ohio for tax evasion, from Toledo to Youngstown. He died too young (of natural causes), and his public service is among my best memories.
Now I’ll tell you who’s not going to be an armed IRS agent: the estimated 87,000 Americans to be hired over the next 10 years at the service, funded with $80 billion provided in the new Inflation Reduction Act.
Republicans and right-wing pundits who are claiming otherwise — “Democrats’ army … will be coming for you,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy warns — are liars. They know better.
Yes, I take this personally, both as my father’s daughter and a Washington watcher who loathes it when politicians lie to their constituents. For decades I’ve bristled when anti-government Republicans have unfairly denigrated the IRS, our essential tax-collecting service. They starved it of funds and then stoked the public’s ire when the agency’s overtaxed public servants (no pun intended) inevitably couldn’t answer taxpayers’ phone calls, send out timely refunds or do anything else the public was right to expect.
Among Republicans’ untruths in this year’s midterm campaigns, the IRS lie is second only to the “Big Lie” — that Donald Trump was robbed of reelection — in its egregiousness and in its evidence of their willingness to tear down the government.
Despite one fact-check after another after another, Republicans and right-wing media stars are unchastened in claiming, as McCarthy does, that the Democrats will be auditing those who “earn less than $75k” a year, or as Fox News host Tucker Carlson does, that agents will be “armed … to make sure you obey.” Sen. Ted Cruz — doing his part to prove that everything is bigger in Texas, even demagoguery — tweeted: “Biden is building a shadow army … to hunt you down and take your money.”
Facts: Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen, whose department includes the IRS, and IRS Commissioner Charles P. Rettig, a Trump appointee, have put it in writing: The additional money would “absolutely not” be used to increase audits of individuals and small businesses making less than $400,000 a year.
More facts: The Inflation Reduction Act’s $80 billion for the IRS will be used to replace outdated computer systems, to cover routine costs and, yes, to hire 87,000 new employees over 10 years. The agency now has the fewest employees since the 1970s (when it handled half as many tax returns ), and more than half of those doing tax enforcement work are nearing retirement. Many of the new hires won’t be tax collectors; they’ll operate the technology and answer your calls, according to the government’s Congressional Research Service.
I’d say there’s not a kernel of truth in Republicans’ claims about armed agents, except that some on the right point to a Fox News report about an IRS job posting for “Criminal Investigation Special Agents,” which said hires would carry firearms and potentially “use deadly force.” Few IRS agents are part of that unit, just as Dad’s gun-carrying wasn’t common at the IRS of his day, and few if any of the new hires would be armed. A Fox News White House correspondent tweeted as much. If only Fox’s prime-time pundits likewise dealt in facts.
The demonization of the IRS isn’t about protecting the hard-working middle class, as Carlson, Cruz, McCarthy and the rest would have you believe. It’s about protecting Republicans’ donor class and Fox’s audience share. The top 1% of taxpayers shorts the government an estimated $160 billion in taxes a year, as Yellen told Congress. The funding for the IRS would bring in about $20 billion more annually, nearly $204 billion over the decade, the Congressional Budget Office projected.
Repeated investigative reporting and government reports attest to billionaires and big businesses paying little or no income taxes, legally and otherwise. Yet Republicans oppose giving the IRS the resources necessary to audit the most complicated returns, even as they’ve long pressured the agency to audit low-income workers who take advantage of the earned-income tax credit for the poor. The nonprofit news organization ProPublica found that the nation’s most audited county was a rural one in Mississippi, where poor Black residents are the majority.
Rettig, in his letter to Congress, put his agency’s need in stark terms: “The IRS has fewer front-line, experienced examiners in the field than at any time since World War II. … As a result, the IRS has for too long been unable to pursue meaningful, impactful examinations of large corporate and high-net-worth taxpayers to ensure they are paying their fair share.”
While we don’t know for sure that Trump’s returns were being audited in years past, it was with good reason I never believed his claims that he couldn’t release them publicly for that reason. (The IRS said it had no objection.) Rich people like him mostly don’t get audited anymore.
The Republicans’ demagoguery isn’t only wrong, it’s dangerous. Amid their attacks on the FBI, this month we saw an armed man killed after threatening a bureau office in the wake of agents’ search of Trump’s Florida home. This week, with increased threats against the IRS, Rettig ordered a review of safety and security measures.
“For me this is personal,” he wrote in a memo to employees.
I know the feeling.
My dad, after a week at his IRS job, often went to Mass on Saturday mornings as well as on Sunday with the family. He must have taken comfort — as I did for him — in the Gospel parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. He couldn’t have imagined how fully Republicans would come to play the Pharisees in the temple, looking down on the tax collectors just as they did the “robbers, evildoers, adulterers.”
But as the parable says, “this man” — the tax collector — “rather than the other, went home justified before God.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.