The Republicans' Never-Ending Supply of Baseless Attacks on the IRS

by Neil H. Buchanan

My new Verdict column, published this morning, completes a three-part series in which I critically examine the latest incarnation of the IRS-bashing strategy that has been perfected by the Republican Party, and House Republicans in particular.  The first column, published on April 23, described the cynical infinite loop that Republicans have set up for the IRS, forcing it to fail and then using its failure to justify yet more punishing policies, which then worsen the failures.  I also noted that this damaging strategy is clearly tied to Republicans' desire to reduce tax revenues, in this case by making it impossible for the tax collector to do its job (especially with respect to higher-income taxpayers, who skew heavily Republican).  Finally, I noted that the background meta-excuse for all of this -- "We pay too much taxes!" -- is not backed up by any logic or data.

I wrote the second column on May 1, along with today's column, in response to a "Majority Staff Report" of the House Ways & Means Committee, which was released in the same week that my first column in this series was published.  I will briefly describe that report below, but interested readers should look at the two more recent Verdict columns, which go into painful detail.  The bottom line, to be blunt about it, is that the Republican staff's report is simply an embarrassment.  Both in terms of its naked political hackery, and its lack of anything resembling analytical heft, the report reflects extremely poorly on the committee staff, and on the Republican members of the committee who have countenanced the report's being issued with their imprimatur.

I was amazed that the report traded in utter nonsense.  Amazed is not, however, the same as surprised.  Some years ago, I published a short piece in Tax Notes (flying off the shelves of newsstands everywhere!), in which I similarly dissected a report from the Republican staff of the Joint Economic Committee (JEC).  That report happened to be focused on the estate tax, but putting the specifics aside, the new Ways & Means report shares with the JEC report an arrogant shamelessness that is unworthy of even this Congress.  It is the kind of analysis that college sophomores are trained to reject, in favor of actually supporting assertions with objective evidence and clear reasoning.

I realize, of course, that I am being naive, because objective evidence and clear reasoning do not get one anywhere in Washington, but seeing it up close is still rather depressing.  Next week, I will analyze an even more depressing piece of hackvocacy (my neologism -- or is it Neilogism?), which came in the form of the official testimony from a conservative think-tank submitted to the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee.  One could argue that it is a waste to spend one's time responding to nonsense that does not even rise to the standard of a decent term paper.  At some point, however, it is important to remind ourselves that this is not a two-sided conversation in which ideas are being put to the test.

But I digress.  The Ways & Means Republican staff report responds to the IRS commissioner's recent description of his agency's being forced to "do less with less."  The essence of the Republicans' response is this: "You should be able to do more with less, and that you did not to do so means that you chose to fail, so Republicans are right to continue to punish you."  If one were to believe the report, every time that something does not work at the IRS, it is because of a "deliberate" choice, or a "refusal" to do something right.

In my two most recent columns, I used various analogies to try to describe the Republicans' attitude toward the IRS.  In today's column, for example, I begin with the image of a dour minister yelling at the small turnout of parishioners at his Sunday service, angry that there are so few of them.  (After I wrote the column, I realized that the picture I had in my mind of the grim, fire-breathing religious zealot with no self-awareness, and who is completely willing to punish people for other people's wrongdoing, is Senator Ted Cruz.  I will never think about him in the same way again.)

That image is helpful, I think, because it makes it clear just how much the Republicans have misdirected their anger.  The Ways & Means report, for example, directs much of its fire at the IRS for insisting on awarding performance bonuses to some of its employees.  The idea, apparently, is the ultimate in guilt by association.  Even if you are doing a good job, and you have fulfilled the benchmarks set by law and policy that would qualify you for a bonus, you are to be denied that bonus because someone else at the agency (who has almost certainly already been punished and/or fired) did something wrong.  That is no way to maintain a competent workforce (which, again, is really the whole point).

The logical structure of the Republican staff report's agrument, such as it is, boils down to this: "You IRS people say that you don't have enough money to perform one of your responsibilities (in this case, staffing telephone centers to answer taxpayers questions).  But you have more than enough money to do that, which we can prove by showing that you spent money on other things that your agency is legally required to do."  As I noted in my second and third Verdict columns in this series, the problem is that the other things on which the IRS spent its reduced budget are also legally required -- it is just that those legal requirements (principally administering key parts of the Affordable Care Act) are unpopular with Republicans.

But the illogic is really rather stunning nonetheless.  Imagine that you are looking at someone who has a $1000 rent bill, a $300 utility bill, and a $1500 food bill, but that person's income is reduced to only $1900.  That person reluctantly tries to figure out how to do less with less, reducing food purchases and so on.  Then the Republican staff comes in and says, "Hey, you have $1900 in income, and only $1500 in food bills.  Why are you deliberately choosing to starve your family?"  Other than relying on the standard "waste, fraud, and abuse" line, the report essentially faults the IRS as a whole for being forced to make difficult choices.  [Update: I have actually understated the craziness here.  Click on this short addendum to this post to understand how the staff report's numbers fail to add up.]

Or, to use a different analogy, think of this as essentially a game of what one might call "reverse musical chairs."  In the standard version of musical chairs, there are more people than chairs, and each time the music stops, one person is left with no place to sit.  In the Republican staff report's version, IRS budget cuts have reduced the number of employees such that there are more chairs that need to be filled than there are people to fill them.  Then, the report says: "Hey, why are you sitting in that chair, when I think you should be sitting in that other chair, over there?!"

I have now written more words in response to that misguided report than the report itself contained.  It has been a particularly perverse type of fun, but it is time to move on.