At this advanced stage of GOP-led obstructionist breakdown, we’re accustomed to stagnation on the big-ticket issues in national politics. A short report in the federal section of Tuesday’s Washington Post affords a perfect example of the same dysfunctions occurring in a more obscure context.
The story’s principals are IRS Commissioner John Koskinen and Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee. Since last October, Chaffetz has been leading a quixotic effort to impeach Koskinen for alleged misdeeds stemming from the long-ago-fizzled-out IRS targeting scandal (remember that?), a campaign he announced just days after the Department of Justice informed him that it was closing its investigation after finding no evidence of criminal wrongdoing. The DOJ’s decision merely made official what had been already obvious for well over a year—that conservatives had no evidence the IRS had singled them out for intimidation. Characteristically undeterred by the absence of supporting evidence, Republicans have used the scandal as a pretext for cuts to the IRS’s enforcement budget, as well as for other attempts to undermine, obstruct, and delay its work.
Chaffetz’s latest brush with Koskinen combines these favorite GOP pasttimes. Earlier this year, Koskinen told Chaffetz’s committee that the agency badly needed a budget increase to improve its enforcement efforts. In recent years, IRS funding has fallen to its lowest level since 2000, causing it to reduce its workforce by 10,000 even as it processes more and more tax returns. As a result, its customer service has declined, as have its enforcement capacities. This makes life easier for tax cheaters, robs the government of funds, increases the deficit, and ultimately passes costs onto law-abiding taxpayers. (The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities has provided excellent coverage of this assault on the IRS’s budget and the alarming results.) Koskinen doubtlessly knew that it was hopeless to request more money. Still, he went through the ritual of asking, the committee went through the ritual of listening, and (aside from a tiny increase set aside for customer service and cybersecurity) the new enforcement funds are today nowhere to be found.
Koskinen’s response, and Chaffetz’s reaction, are revealing. Just last week, the IRS announced that it was adding about 700 new enforcement officers to perform audits and pursue tax cheats—despite not receiving the funds it had recently requested. As the Post reported, Koskinen found the money exactly as you’d hope a hard-pressed public official would: by using funds made available by retirements, attrition, and new efficiencies in the agency’s budget. Not ideal, but better than nothing in an era of self-imposed austerity.
In response, Chaffetz demanded to know how the IRS had found money to hire new agents just months after telling the committee that it was cash-strapped. “The inescapable conclusion,” he wrote in a letter to Koskinen, “is that your testimony to Congress was inaccurate, reflecting either an attempt to exaggerate IRS’s budget needs or a management failure in understanding the needs of your organization.” Of course, the conclusion was not so inescapable—especially since (per the Post) the new hires still won’t make up for the employees the agency has recently lost. That answer is unlikely to stop the Congressman from using this incident as yet another reason for impeachment.
If we’ve given up hope for progress on major legislation, the least we could do is raise more than a sigh at this petty pestering of public servants. As E.J. Dionne noted in a great 2010 column, “Champions of government’s core functions have been far too timid in taking on the slanders directed against the IRS.” The IRS, noted Dionne, “are the people who collect the revenue that allows the government to finance our troops who are in harm’s way, help our wounded warriors, pay Grandma’s Medicare bills, cover the costs of keeping our food and drugs safe, and do so many of the other things the vast majority of us want our government to accomplish.” And by now, the key problem when it comes to this agency is clear. It’s not that the IRS is harassing Republicans, but precisely the reverse.