Given how fiercely Republicans rail against liberals who want to “defund the police,” it’s curious to see Republican House members rushing to defund the Internal Revenue Service workers who fight economic crime. Darkly raising the specter of “87,000 new IRS agents” jack-booting their way through America’s homes and small businesses, the new US House majority last week — in its first legislative act — voted to slash $70 billion in funding from the IRS. “I am proud to vote to put an end to Biden’s army of IRS agents,” said Elise Stefanik, a House Republican leader from New York.
Never mind that the claim of 87,000 new agents has been repeatedly debunked — the money allocated to the IRS in President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act also covers things like upgrading the oldest IT system in the federal government and any new hiring would be over a decade, largely replacing retirees. What’s galling are these famously “law-and-order” Republicans shrugging off laws that target tax cheats. You could almost conclude that Republicans don’t have a problem with aggressive policing until it’s their rich friends who are in the crosshairs — except that the rich are already far less likely to be audited by the IRS than ordinary taxpayers.
Since 2010, when Republicans began their assault on IRS funding, audits of millionaires have declined by almost 80 percent. The agency now has fewer trained auditors than at any time since 1953, and the US population has more than doubled since then. The disgraceful news that a single auditor was initially assigned to wade through Donald Trump’s byzantine returns shows just how outgunned the IRS actually is against the super-rich and their lawyers.
What that means for the rest of us is billions in uncollected taxes — the US Treasury estimates it could be as much as $7 trillion over the next decade — money that certainly could be put to better use than lining the pockets of plutocrats. The so-called tax gap between what is legally owed and what is collected is relatively low in the United States (about 15 percent), but when a candidate for president boasts that not paying his fair share of taxes “makes me smart,” the trust — and compliance — in the system badly erodes. Is the brazen tax evasion rampant in, say, Greece, or Brazil, really what we’re aiming for?
Yes, our country’s monumental tax code ought to be simpler so that unwitting taxpayers don’t get caught in some overzealous auditor’s maw. But the IRS doesn’t write the tax laws, with their thousands of special-interest deductions and obscure breaks. Congress does that. Republicans might redirect their rage at the lobbyists and wealthy campaign contributors who pile on the complexities that make the tax code such a burden, but that would involve looking in the mirror.
The “service” part of the Internal Revenue Service has been on the decline for years. Trying to reach an IRS agent by phone makes Southwest Airlines look like the concierge at a fine hotel. Last year the agency answered only 13 percent of calls to its help line. Not surprisingly, most of those calls were from lower-income or elderly taxpayers who do their own taxes. And now the Republicans want to further hobble the agency.
Another irony, if you want to call it that: A common Republican refrain on guns is that we should “just enforce the laws we already have” rather than pass new gun controls. But in this case, Republicans are openly hostile to enforcing duly enacted tax laws. Oh, and did I mention the federal deficit, another hardy GOP bugbear? The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the Republicans’ gambit, far from saving money, would increase the deficit by $115 billion over 10 years, thanks to uncollected revenue.
Since Biden has vowed to veto the bill if it reaches his desk, it’s tempting to dismiss all this as just another toothless bit of Republican grandstanding, like the 70-odd failed attempts to repeal Obamacare. Republican hypocrisy in claiming to care about anyone but the wealthiest Americans has rarely been on such stark display. Don’t avert your eyes.
It’s hardly news that people don’t like paying taxes. Most people don’t like shoveling their sidewalk after it snows, or buying car insurance, or stopping at red lights, but we do these things as part of the social contract. We should defend, not defund, the overburdened public servants struggling to keep our tax system — and thus our government — functioning and fair.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.