New York Times reporter and reliable Democratic Party defender-Republican attacker Jackie Calmes valiantly defended that most reviled organization, the Internal Revenue Service, from unfair Republican attacks, under a battle-tinged headline in Friday’s edition: “I.R.S. Supporters Fight Back Against Republican Offensive.” She played the “reduced budget” card as an excuse for agency incompetence. Calmes even downplayed the IRS snooping into conservative Tea Party nonprofits during an election year.
For five years, congressional Republicans have taken out their anti-tax wrath on the Internal Revenue Service, cutting its budget by nearly $1 billion, reducing its staff by about 17,000, and even threatening to impeach its chief.
To supporters of the agency -- and there are some -- years of such attacks have yielded exactly what Republicans seemed to want: a depleted, defanged tax collector.
“I’m appalled, that’s all I can say,” said Lawrence B. Gibbs, a tax lawyer at Miller & Chevalier who joined the I.R.S. during the Nixon administration and was President Ronald Reagan’s choice for commissioner in 1986. “It’s fine to demonize the I.R.S. It has always been a target. Listen, that goes with the job.”
Calmes even defended the IRS snooping into conservative nonprofits during an election year, though her portrayal of the facts was fuzzy at best.
As certain as death and taxes, tax season political attacks on the I.R.S. go back decades. But in recent years, the intensity has grown and the agency’s funding in turn shrank more than any other time in memory. The campaign gained strength in 2013, when Republicans seized on management failures to allege that I.R.S. employees had singled out conservative groups for greater scrutiny and delays in reviewing their applications for tax-exempt status as “social welfare” organizations, though liberal-leaning groups were examined as well, investigations showed.
That particular talking point on the alleged targeting of liberal groups was shot down by a congressional report, prepared by the House Oversight Committee chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa:
Only seven applications in the IRS backlog contained the word ‘progressive,’ all of which were then approved by the IRS, while Tea Party groups received unprecedented review and experienced years-long delays. While some liberal-oriented groups were singled out for scrutiny, evidence shows it was due to non-political reasons.
Calmes managed to round up the few Republican voices willing to defend the IRS. She also signed on to the liberal assumption that giving a government organization less that whatever it requested for its budget one year is an automatic excuse for future failures.
The assaults and especially the funding cuts have reached a point that the agency’s defenders are speaking out.
Late last year, Congress grudgingly gave the I.R.S. an increase, though still far less than it sought. In advance of that action, seven former I.R.S. commissioners including Mr. Gibbs -- representing three Republican and three Democratic administrations -- wrote to congressional leaders of their concern.
She cheered for more intrusive tax audits.
Federal reports document the impact. Tax audits are at the lowest level in a decade, affecting fewer than 1 percent of taxpayers. Reduced efforts to enforce compliance cost an estimated $6 billion in uncollected revenues in 2014 and $8 billion in 2015. The I.R.S. has a backlog of almost a million pieces of correspondence from taxpayers.
Calmes against played the “reduced budget” card as an excuse for agency incompetence.
In a hearing this week, Representative George Holding, Republican of North Carolina, complained to Mr. Koskinen that the I.R.S. was not putting enough priority on trying to catch criminals, saying, “You can’t deter crime unless you prosecute crime.”
The commissioner pointed to his reduced budget, down 17 percent from five years ago, and replied, “It’s a point I’ve been making for two and a half years.”
Calmes glossed over the agency’s many woes, and found Republican budget cuts at the root.
But by mid-2014, he had so infuriated Republicans over the loss of emails related to the [targeting conservatives] matter that by last fall, when the Justice Department decided against pressing any charges, some House Republicans filed a resolution to impeach Mr. Koskinen -- an action that has not been taken against a federal executive in 140 years.
The resolution has not advanced. This week, instead, the House acted on the various relatively minor measures to slap the I.R.S. One would prohibit the agency from rehiring employees fired for misconduct, something Mr. Koskinen acknowledged happened in the past when the I.R.S. had to hire thousands of experienced temporary workers at tax time.
Five House Republicans summed up their party’s attitude toward the I.R.S. in a column on a conservative website on tax-filing day: “Clean up your act, because this is only the beginning.”
Stan Collender, a longtime federal budget analyst, now executive vice president at Qorvis MSLGROUP, has criticized such threats before, and this week was no different.
“You really shouldn’t be able to reduce the amount you spend on I.R.S., decrease their performance ability and then complain about their performance,” he said.