Why the I.R.S. Is at the Center of a Political Firestorm


In recent days, Republican politicians and operatives have attacked the Biden administration’s $80 billion plan to beef up the Internal Revenue Service’s capacity to audit wealthy Americans.

Announcing the 10-year initiative, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the additional money would address a backlog of unprocessed tax returns, improve taxpayer services, help the department overhaul its antiquated technology and allow it to hire thousands of new employees. Democrats have long accused Republicans of deliberately starving the tax agency of the resources it needs to function effectively — an accusation many in the G.O.P. are happy to accept as fact.

Almost universally, Republicans saw a political opportunity in Yellen’s move.

Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, said that “of all the things that have come out of Washington that have been outrageous, this has got to be pretty close to the top.” He added that Democrats were “basically” offering “a middle finger to the American public.”

In an open letter addressed as “Dear American Job Seeker,” Senator Rick Scott of Florida, the leader of the G.O.P.’s efforts to recapture the Senate, threatened to “defund” President Biden’s plan and warned Americans not to apply for the new I.R.S. positions.

To get some ground truth on what the administration is trying to accomplish — and why — I spoke with Alan Rappeport, who covers the Treasury Department in Washington, and Jim Tankersley, a White House correspondent for The Times who focuses on economic policy.

We also delved into the politics of the Republican critiques, which come as various investigations bore in on the former president’s finances and his handling of classified documents.

Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:

I know both of you have been following this I.R.S. fracas closely. I’d welcome both of your initial thoughts on what is going on here.

Alan Rappeport: Thanks, Blake. This is a policy that has been a long time coming, and in some ways it is surprising that it managed to hang on as one of the few surviving pieces of President Biden’s original “Build Back Better” agenda.

For Democrats, keeping this in their Inflation Reduction Act was a victory in many ways, because for many years they have wanted to make sure that the I.R.S. had enough money to operate properly after Republicans went to great lengths to starve the agency of resources.

But the policy also comes with political challenges because, well, nobody really loves paying taxes or being audited. The I.R.S. is an easy agency to demonize, and giving it $80 billion could be a hard sell to voters.

It strikes me that this I.R.S. expansion is coming at a particularly fraught time in American politics, with many on the far right whipping up anti-government sentiments after the F.B.I. searched Donald Trump’s home in Florida. Alan, are you seeing those two streams cross each other?

Alan Rappeport: That definitely seems to be the case. Both situations play into the fears that Republicans tend to feel — and to stoke — about the federal government being weaponized against them.

And the fact that the I.R.S. funding was approved around the same time that Trump’s estate was searched kind of amplified those sentiments, with social media and cable news linking them to drive home the idea that the government is conspiring against conservatives.

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All of this strikes a nerve for Republicans, who remember a decade ago when I.R.S. officials including Lois Lerner apologized for unfairly scrutinizing Tea Party organizations.

Jim, what do you make of the electoral game Republicans are playing here? What are they hoping to accomplish?

Jim Tankersley: The politics of I.R.S. enforcement are a framing contest, and Republicans are trying to win it early.

Polls suggest Americans love the idea of making tax-dodging corporations and rich people pay what they owe; that’s been Democrats’ message.

Republicans are betting they can pitch this as something much scarier: The I.R.S. harassing small businesses and middle-class people with more audits. (As Alan has reported, Yellen has repeatedly said the audits will target only large companies and people earning more than $400,000 a year.)

Did the Biden administration make a political error in promoting this idea during the middle of a red-hot election cycle?

Jim Tankersley: I would be hesitant to draw that conclusion right now. For one, it’s notable that in a bill filled with corporate tax increases and hundreds of billions of dollars in tax credits and spending on health care and climate change, Republicans have focused so heavily on the I.R.S.

It’s largely a reflection of how popular other parts of the law, like reducing prescription drug costs for Medicare and even reducing the budget deficit, are in polls. The ways to raise tax revenue were always likely to be the easiest target.

It’s a near-certainty that if Democrats had substituted a different tax increase for the I.R.S. piece, Republicans would be attacking that instead.

Alan Rappeport: Great points, Jim. I’d also add that while hiring 87,000 new employees will make the I.R.S. bigger, the Democrats hope that this will ultimately benefit honest taxpayers who, in theory, will be able to reach customer service agents on the phone and eventually pay their taxes more painlessly.

Of course, Americans have never loved paying taxes. Our country’s founding, after all, came about after a bunch of guys dressed up as Native Americans and dumped a bunch of tea in Boston Harbor because they didn’t want to send their hard-earned money to King George III of England. Is this fight over the fresh I.R.S. funding just another expression of our historically freighted attitudes toward the taxman, or something different?

Alan Rappeport: I think it comes back to how Republicans and Democrats have starkly different views about how government should work, and the I.R.S. often sits at the nexus of this.

Republicans tend to prefer smaller government and lower taxes, and the I.R.S. is a huge government bureaucracy that is trying to collect as much tax money as is legally possible.

So for Republicans, giving the I.R.S. an extra $80 billion to collect taxes more aggressively is an easy thing to hate.

— Blake

Is there anything you think we’re missing? Anything you want to see more of? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at onpolitics@nytimes.com.

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