Very few people enjoy paying taxes, so it’s hardly surprising the Internal Revenue Service is unpopular. This makes it an easy political target, particularly for those who are already on a mission to slash and eliminate as many taxes as possible. Senator Ted Cruz, for example, proposed shuttering the IRS entirely during his recent presidential campaign and said he would post the 125,000 agents along the southern border.
For years, the agency has been in the crosshairs of the Republican Party, particularly the far-right members of the House who have now organized themselves as the Freedom Caucus. But last week the war on the IRS escalated significantly, beyond mere rhetoric and hectoring: the House Judiciary Committee is now seeking to impeach IRS Commissioner John Koskinen.
Ostensibly, the decapitation of the IRS can be traced to the scandal that broke three years ago, when it was disclosed that conservative groups were being held to a higher standard in their quest for tax-exempt status. The agency’s bungling of that issue and the subsequent dodginess of those responding to Republican fury—including Koskinen—only added to Republican resentment.
But impeaching a civil servant? Even if Koskinen were inept (his real crime may be his failure to genuflect before those who badgered him in hearings,) invoking impeachment is like using a nuke for pest control. The last civil servant who was impeached was William W. Belknap, the secretary of war, for taking a kickback. That was 1876.
If Koskinen survives the impeachment process, as expected, he still faces possible censure, but whatever the outcome, assaults on the agency are sure to multiply. That’s because the real complaint many Republicans have with the IRS is not that it is underperforming but, rather, that it is performing at all.
For Republicans, particularly members of the Freedom Caucus, targeting the IRS represents a crafty—some might say “cunning”—strategy: a pincer movement designed to emasculate government’s ability to raise revenues, even as it draws the line on deficit spending. In such a scheme, the IRS is the carotid, that vital artery that oxygenates all of government. The less it takes in, the more government atrophies.
And the political risks are minimal. In an election year, what’s not to like? Name one politician whose career was set back by attacking the IRS, a cultural whipping boy for as long as there has been a government. In the Bible, “publican” (or tax man) is a dirty word, and only Jesus could make an honest man of Matthew, the corrupt tax collector turned disciple.
For years, Republicans have whittled away at the IRS budget, deliberately undercutting its capabilities. Its budget has been cut by about $1 billion—about 17 percent—over its 2010 budget, factoring in inflation. The agency has been forced to shed some 13,000 people. The result: During the height of last year’s filing season, 90 percent of calls to the agency’s helpline went unanswered. That further incited discontent, fed the perception of a callous bureaucracy, and allowed those in oversight to cast themselves as champions of the aggrieved.