Thursday, April 21, 2022

Republicans' Increasingly Anarchic Extremism Is the Mutant Spawn of Anti-Tax Zealotry

by Neil H. Buchanan

There was a time when conservatives could plausibly claim to favor law and order.  Although that was always deeply infused with racism and included a lot of nodding and winking at various types of atrocious behavior (see, for example, the excuses for privileged White males to get away with sexual assault, because "boys will be boys"), they were at least able to say with a straight face that they wanted (most) laws to be enforced and that (most) people should live by the law.

That is plainly no longer even arguably the case, but how did the change happen?  As it turns out, the area in which conservative politicians began to be openly contemptuous of law and order was taxes.  Lacking the political will to cut rich people's taxes as much as they wanted, the next best thing was to make everyone hate taxes and tax enforcers so much that there would be revulsion against the very idea of enforcing taxes.  Although Donald Trump is an extreme outlier in many ways, he was walking on a path that Republicans had cleared and paved for years when he said that not paying taxes "makes me smart."
If "smart" people (which actually means people with enough money to take advantage of giveaways to the rich) can legally avoid paying taxes -- which is not to deny that Trump was also breaking the law outright -- one might hope that we would want to change the law to force them to pay taxes.  We also would want to enforce the law more scrupulously.  Instead, Republicans count on the public's hatred of the Internal Revenue Service to create cover to allow the richest Americans to get away with paying nothing.

Earlier this week, I wrote a column describing how the IRS, against all odds and under very bad circumstances, has been able to set up a surprisingly smooth system for people to submit their tax forms.  Even though that is a genuine achievement, I added that this should all be unnecessary, because there is no good reason why the tax system should require even a tiny fraction of the time that ours imposes on this country's citizens.
Republicans affirmatively want to make the tax system frustrating and annoying, and they have been doing this for decades.  And I should add that, even after Republicans soon succeed in creating a one-party autocracy, there is no reason to think that they will make tax life easier for most citizens.

Here, I want to expand the inquiry to ask why the current system is as bad as it is.  I will conclude by connecting some dots between anti-tax zealotry and the increasing insanity across the board among Republicans.

After reading my column on Tuesday, Professor Dorf sent me an email describing a personal situation in which a tax matter had become a frustrating, months-long quest simply to find someone at the IRS who could answer what was in fact a simple question.  I replied by recounting an entirely different personal situation in which the same thing had happened to me a few years ago.  The common feature of our stories was that a successful phone call that completely resolved the matter would most likely have lasted about sixty seconds, but we both ended up spending hours over several months trying to figure out what to do.

The latest estimates are that the IRS's funding is so inadequate that it is unable to answer 75 percent of calls that come in.  One might imagine that this would result in a situation where people call and are put on hold, with three out of four taxpayers hanging up in frustration while the most persistent people (with the time to devote to this) eventually reach a beleaguered-but-patient IRS employee.  That, however, is not the way it works.  Instead, callers end up navigating through an automated decision tree, only to have the call end with an automated voice saying that no one is available and the taxpayer should try again later.  In my case, I called back multiple times and tried different options at each branch of the decision tree, but the result was always the same.

This was, mind you, only after failing to find the key information online, and after not being able to submit my question by email and wait for a response.  I was waiting for a refund from a previous tax year, so there was no deadline, meaning that I would quit in frustration and then come back to the issue after waiting another month or so in the vain hope that the check would arrive.
Because I teach tax law, I was aware of the Office of the Taxpayer Advocate, an ombudsperson-like customer complaint office within the IRS.  Even contacting them, however, could only be done by sending snail mail, and although I received my refund a month or so after mailing them, they never contacted me directly, and I have no idea whether they had anything to do with my long-delayed success.

Again, none of this should be necessary at all, because the types of questions that Professor Dorf and I were facing would not even arise in a tax system that was not set up deliberately to make people miserable.  And also again, the absurdity was heightened by the reality that our respective questions would have been easy to resolve in just a minute or two, if only a qualified employee had been reachable.

On Monday of this week, one of the Tax Day stories in the media included an appearance by an NBC reporter, Jo Ling Kent, on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," in a segment titled "IRS Having 'Hardest Year Ever' Due To Staffing Shortage."  It was a surprisingly sympathetic piece regarding the IRS, but Kent basically presented a perky story about how the IRS is not able to hire enough workers because the economy is so hot.  You know, nobody can find workers these days!  Kent contrasted the wages of new hires at companies like Amazon with starting wages for emergency-hire IRS seasonal workers, essentially saying that the real problem is that the IRS at this time simply cannot compete with the private sector.

To her credit, Kent did mention at two points that the IRS's budget had been slashed over the years, but those acknowledgements were offered so quickly and were such obvious afterthoughts that viewers could reasonably be expected not even to notice that the real story is not a "2022 hot job market" problem.

But the bigger story is huge.  The Republican Party has been running not just in favor of regressive taxes but against The Tax Man for decades.  One low point came when Newt Gingrich's Contract on America-generated congressional majorities ran a series of show trials in the mid-1990's to convince people that the IRS was out of control.  The hearings in fact proved the opposite, but that did not matter to Republicans, who in short order created a climate of fear within the IRS by imposing zero-tolerance policies that essentially involved automatic suspension of any employee who was the subject of a complaint of any kind from a taxpayer.  Tax evasion skyrocketed, and IRS employees' morale plummeted.

The Republicans' solicitude for tax evaders was so great that they imposed a rule on the IRS forbidding workers even to us terms like "tax protesters" -- which is the standard way to describe people who insist on pursuing utterly frivolous arguments in refusing to pay taxes (such as the claim that only foreign-earned income is taxable, or that the Thirteenth Amendment's prohibition of slavery and involuntary servitude means that taxes are unconstitutional).  Congressional Republicans even require the Taxpayer Advocate to include in its annual report how many times IRS employees have used such forbidden words in describing tax protester cases.

Longtime readers of Dorf on Law are likely to recall that I spent a shockingly large amount of time in the 2010's debunking what quickly turned out to be a non-scandal.  Republicans had set up a one-sided inquiry that the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration was required to pursue, where he found that some low-level employees in the unit of the IRS that is supposed to deny tax-exempt status to political organizations had -- can you believe it?! -- been screening cases using obviously political search terms like "Tea Party."  Because Republicans did not ask, the Inspector General did not report that the IRS employees in question had also been using terms with left-leaning implications like "occupy."

None of that mattered, nor did it matter that the IRS's higher-ups (knowing that this would look bad) had long since stopped the use of even the most probative political search terms.  Republicans saw an opportunity to make political hay, claiming that surely President Obama had ordered the IRS to "target" right-wing groups.  In control of the House, Republicans used their investigative powers for years to try to prove that this was a political hit job.  They failed again and again.

It was then that the IRS's budget began to be slashed in earnest, and Republicans were quite open about their intent to "punish" (their word) the agency for something that it had not done.  (The absurd conclusion to the non-scandal, years later, involved having the IRS acknowledge and apologize for its low-level employees' original errors, which the IRS had done — and corrected — from the very beginning.)

So, Republicans punished an entire government agency for something that never happened, not caring that this ultimately harmed not only innocent employees but the public that the agency is supposed to serve.

And the result was predictable.  Morale has never been lower, experienced experts continue to quit in frustration, and taxpayers become ever more enraged at the IRS because no one is answering the telephones.

There is more than a passing resemblance between the Republicans' Javert-like pursuit of the IRS and their obsession with the Benghazi attack, which happened about a year after the IRS non-scandal began.  Republicans were in the process of honing down their strategy of turning hearings into nonstop political warfare, not accepting good news ("Hey, it looks like there was no political manipulation of the tax cops!"  "No one set up the four Americans who died at Benghazi to be killed.") and restarting inquiries each time the previous ones had come up empty.  And lest we forget, the 2016 controversy over Hillary Clinton's emails was an accidental side-effect of the Benghazi nonsense.

There are certainly areas other than taxes in which conservatives have tried to sabotage good government over the years.  They have, for example, done everything within their power to strangle the Postal Service, imposing unique and ridiculously damaging accounting rules that make it look like that agency is losing money.  (All of that was going on for decades before Louis DeJoy came along.)  They underfund things like departments of motor vehicles at the state level and then complain that the "bureaucrats" are too slow and not friendly enough.  As Vice President, Al Gore did an amazing job (requiring very little money) in improving customer service across the federal government, but rather than celebrating and building on that success, Republicans mocked it and instead went back to making everything worse.

Having long since dropped the idea that they should limit themselves to trying to change laws that they do not like, Republicans more than ever are in the business of sabotaging the enforcement of the laws that they cannot change.  Not paying taxes is somehow seen not only as smart but somehow patriotic, with Republicans insisting that the "jack-booted thugs" at the IRS are supposedly doing the evil work of the deep state.
And the people who stormed the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 are now defended either as patriots or normal tourists, while the police who tried to maintain law and order are ignored, disparaged, or worse.

One of my early columns for Verdict's predecessor discussed a 2010 terrorist attack on the IRS facility in Austin, Texas, in which an employee was killed by a deranged man who flew a small plane into the building.  The central point of my column was to deplore the almost jokey nature of the press's coverage of that tragedy, which communicated a kind of shrugging acceptance that, well, it was the IRS!

Disrespect for government employees has become part of the conservative movement.  The people who are supposed to enforce the laws on the books are vilified when the lawless people are Republicans doing things that they feel like doing (not wearing masks, for example).  Attacking the IRS has been a decades-long dress rehearsal for all of this madness.  And now we see the live performance, the least of which involves making people jump through needless hoops to file their taxes.  This is no longer about policy differences but fomenting anarchy and violence.
Who said taxes were boring?