The IRS is the agency Americans love to hate. For generations it’s been lambasted in songs and served as low hanging fruit for comedians. It’s workforce, which is about two thirds women, generally work in nondescript offices to avoid attack by terrorists such as Andrew Joseph Stack, the Oklahoman suicide pilot who in 2010 flew his plane into the side of a building housing an IRS field office, murdering one worker and injuring 13 others. Stack died on the spot, but newly empowered Republicans soon took the anti-IRS fight to congress. Since Stack’s attack, Congress cut the agency’s budget by about ten percent, forcing what so-far has been a four-year agency-wide hiring freeze and overall 11 percent reduction in workers—at a time when implementation of the Affordable Care Act has been increasing the agency’s workload.
While many pundits, I’m guessing with no affiliation with any of the victims of Stark’s attack, have downplayed the incident, writing it off as a manifestation of mental illness caused by the stress of a difficult tax collection odyssey, it’s not so easy to explain what the House Republicans are up to. They usually polish their mayhem with tropes about cutting government waste. But cutting IRS funding reduces the government’s ability to effectively collect revenue, thus, like tax cuts for the rich, undermining deficit reduction, in opposition to the Republican Party’s signature deficit fighting rhetoric.
“The IRS Sucks”
Four years of these cuts, layoffs and attrition, coupled with new tax reporting mandates associated with the Affordable Care Act and new regulations cracking down on international tax havens, have pushed the IRS over the edge. This tax season, 60 percent of taxpayer phone calls to the IRS help line never got through. That’s over eight million people who got hung up on. Of those who did get through, they spent an average of a half hour on hold before reaching a human. Some facilities, such as one in Philadelphia that handles questions about international filing requirements, have lost two thirds of their workers.
Compounding the issue is a loss of lower paid clerical workers, who cannot be replaced due to the hiring freeze. This clerical workload lands on the desks of more highly trained and paid specialists, further cutting efficiency of the agency while destroying morale and adding to the stress load of already overburdened IRS employees, driving many away from the agency, exacerbating budget cuts with a brain drain.
If the hiring freeze is ever lifted, it will be difficult to recruit qualified candidates to work in this hellhole. Bloomberg Businessweek sums this up with a recent magazine cover. It shows a woman sitting at a desk literally surrounded with multi-foot tall stacks of papers and files. The bold 100+ point cover text states, “The IRS Sucks.” The subhead reads, “If you think paying your taxes is bad, try working at America’s most unloved agency.”
It’s awful to be working at the IRS, and it’s awful to be dealing with the IRS. This is not simply fallout from Republican idiocy. To the contrary, it’s the Republican game plan. GOP presidential hopeful, Ted Cruz, summed up his party’s stance, albeit more bluntly and more honestly than some of his counterparts. Last month, in announcing his candidacy, he promised to abolish the IRS—with his signature wacky angle being a vow to reassign its legion of auditors, accountants, secretaries and investigators to Border Patrol duty.
The Cruz plan abolishes not only the IRS, but the whole concept of a progressive tax system where the wealthy are taxed at a higher rate than poor, working and middle class folks. In its place he proposes one flat tax rate, raising taxes on those who can least afford to pay them, while dramatically cutting taxes even further on the richest Americans—essentially a bad deal for the 99 percent, and a great deal for the top one tenth of the top one percent. Follow the money. These are the folks who own Congress.
Wrecking the Tax System
Wrecking the tax system has long been a goal of the Republican Party. The long game comes down to cutting taxes for their benefactors and masters, but more importantly, destroying government’s ability to function by destroying its ability to raise money to pay its bills. Government agencies that have become artificially cash-strapped despite a growing economy are forced by this Republican engineered austerity to decimate their own ability to provide the basic social functions they exist to provide, such as education, health care and physical infrastructure.
These public service areas represent sectors of our economy that generally operate outside of the greed/profit model. Republican strategy strives to bankrupt government, thus placing these sectors under private control with corporations plundering their riches in the same way carpetbaggers plunder conquered lands. Decimating government ability to protect the environment and financial system from corporate plunder is an added plus for their handlers. This is the Republican end-game. Bankrupt accountable government by any means, then put the people back under the thumb of the party’s masters.
The Republicans have been fighting this fight since the New Deal. They can’t quite win it and crush all that is good in government because things like Social Security, public education, environmental protection, financial regulations and free public roads are popular. They can’t fight on the issues. And they know that. So instead, Republicans dance around who they are and who they represent, running a virtual factory that manufactures tropes and memes, vapid and devoid of any empirical argument, all in a quest to connect with the most banal rot within the American psyche, tapping into deep seated hatred and fear. Our targets become each other, and a carefully a structured Republican concept of enemies—one that never includes our day to day oppressors.
In this meme war, the IRS shows up as a vulnerable link in a social system that Republicans want to disrupt and ultimately disembowel. Overall, the IRS’s function of taking money from the greedy sociopathic rich and using it to support basic services for the people who work to keep society running, is a popular function—even as the rich game tax codes toward their own ends. But the IRS takes money from most everyone else as well, making it ideal fodder for contempt. It’s easy to paint the people who have the power to seize your savings as jackbooted thugs, and at its worst, the IRS has played this part well. Most people fear and loath the concept of “the taxman,” gender inaccurate as it generally is.
Central casting couldn’t come up with a better villain than the IRS. Cut its funding, thus making the unpleasant duty of paying taxes and dealing with the IRS even more unpleasant and frustrating, and presto—Republicans can rally working people in support of the anti-tax interests of the greedy rich.
The end result is exemplified in Tea Partyers, some who barely pay taxes themselves, but troll the Internet screaming to abolish estate taxes on multi-million dollar inheritances. Their loyalty is rewarded with some swag and a false notion of comradery with the gentry. Shared hatred of the IRS is the glue that holds this unnatural bond together. Eight million people being hung up upon when they call the IRS for assistance, helps move to ball to a day when there is no IRS—when Ted Cruz is president and IRS auditors and secretaries patrol the wildernesses of northern Minnesota gunning for migrating Canadians.
Right on cue, the same Republicans who defunded the IRS and caused this year’s tax mayhem, are stepping in to maul the victim—and doing it on the public dime. The Republican members of the House Ways and Means Committee commissioned a “Majority Report” entitled, “Doing Less With Less: IRS’s Spending Decisions Harm Taxpayers.” They condemn the IRS for spending $1.2 billion, with another $500million budgeted for this year, on costs associated with implementing the Affordable Care Act, as mandated by congress.
House of Idiots
The report just throws these numbers out there like red meat, as if the IRS, and not the congress, created the law. Not executing the tax requirements of the law would be in contempt of congress. Yet this idiocy, blaming the IRS for doing its job, is front and center in the House report, documenting only how intellectually bankrupt the congress has become.
The report contextualizes spending money to administer IRS obligations related to the Affordable Care Act as the IRS “deliberately” cutting spending for customer service. A portion of the Affordable Care Act obligation is tied to enforcing the individual insurance mandate, which began life as a Republican provision and was included in the GOP Romneycare plan, instituted in Massachusetts and essentially plagiarized by the Obama administration in a failed effort to get Republican support for universal healthcare. This hypocrisy knows no bounds. Add that $1.7 billion in new Affordable Care Act obligations to the $1.2 billion in congressional cuts and you can really see how congress has undermined IRS operations.
Though it seems disjointed from the issue at hand, the report also references Republican allegations that the IRS specifically targeted Tea Party and other right wing organizations for audits. Congressional Republicans, while cutting IRS funding, spent $20 million dollars investigating such allegations, only to hit a $20 million dead end. The IRS, for better or worse, was also routinely investigating groups across the political spectrum, including liberal and left groups who claimed not-for-profit status while seeming to engage in political advocacy in violation of their tax exempt status. The final chapter of that story seemed to have escaped mention in the House report, just like it did in much of the corporate media. The report goes on for 14 pages, chastising the IRS for not hiring outside collection agencies, while simultaneous chastising them for hiring outside counsel.
This whole IRS debacle has the stink of a set-up. While the IRS seems like the victim, the GOP’s long game condemns us all.