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Yes, progressives also should be worried about 87,000 new IRS agents

Michael Schaus
Michael Schaus
Opinion
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Given how skeptical many Democrats generally are of empowering law enforcement agencies with more authority or resources, their enthusiasm for spending $80 billion to bolster the Internal Revenue Service as part of the “Inflation Reduction Act” is odd. 

Certainly, it makes sense that progressives would be excited about mobilizing an army of revenuers to make the rich “pay their fair share.” Nonetheless, such exuberance should at least be tempered given the agency’s institutional tendency to target disadvantaged individuals and communities rather than lawyered-up millionaires and billionaires. 

Perhaps sensing that an army of 87,000 new IRS employees (more than doubling the current workforce) might not be an inherently popular way to spend money during tough economic times, Democratic leadership has assured the American people that average middle-income Americans have nothing to fear. 

Audits, we are told, won’t increase in regularity for anyone making less than $400,000 per year

Such an assurance would be more believable had those very same Democrats not torpedoed an attempt to codify such language in the bill. Ultimately, there’s no reason to believe the IRS’s expansion won’t land more average Americans in the agency’s crosshairs… other than a few promises made by Democratic politicians facing a potentially brutal midterm election year.  

And if we can’t trust the word of politicians pandering for votes, what can we trust? 

Of course, even “tax the rich” progressives ought to have enough political cynicism to doubt one of the nation’s most feared law enforcement agencies will use its new resources to laser focus exclusively on auditing America’s share of billionaires. After all, the Inflation Reduction Act changes none of the institutional or systemic deficiencies of the IRS — it merely gives the agency more resources to enforce the same complex web of loophole-riddled tax law currently being gamed by the wealthy. 

Indeed, we are now learning that the Joint Committee on Taxation has even estimated the Inflation Reduction Act is likely to increase taxes for households earning between $50,000 and $75,000, while households earning more than $1 million might actually get a tax break. (So much for sticking it to the rich.) 

And beyond the potential for new taxes, according to the editors at The Wall Street Journal, the Joint Committee on Taxation also says 78 to 90 percent of the money raised from under-reported income — money raised by all those new agents conducting audits — will likely come from Americans earning less than $200,000. 

None of this is terribly surprising, given the fact that the IRS routinely targets the poorest Americans at a rate similar to that of the “top one percent.” Lower income individuals, as it turns out, have less ability to contest such audits and are therefore “easier” targets for a law enforcement agency whose sole mission is to raise revenue. 

Moreover, the tactics used by the IRS to recover what it determines to be under-reported income are already brutal and intimidating — even when they aren’t employed against Americans struggling to cope in difficult economic times. 

When the IRS determines an individual owes a sum of money, for example, that first dreaded letter in the mail is just the beginning of a nightmarish administrative process. Without a robust and expensive cadre of high-priced attorneys, most middle-and low-income Americans can quickly find liens placed on their property, bank accounts frozen and wages garnished — punitive actions that are often taken long before anyone has a chance to substantively contest the charges or defend themselves in court. 

And, unfortunately, targeting lower income workers is not likely to stop being a routine part of the IRS policing practice. For example, low-income households receiving certain tax credits or occupations that depend largely on cash tips are routinely investigated by an already ruthless and unresponsive army of revenuers. It’s therefore not unreasonable to believe that adding a stadium-full of personnel to the department will merely accelerate the institutionalized methods of harassment and intimidation aimed at vulnerable Americans. 

Which is why the progressive left’s applause for expanding such an agency seems like an egregious example of political cognitive dissonance — especially given what staunch critics most progressives are of other efforts to bolster law enforcement budgets. Such support for the IRS’s budgetary windfall is akin to the kind of blind support conservatives all too often give local police departments that promise to “get tough” on crime. 

As a result, progressives who pride themselves on being skeptical of law enforcement should be just as dubious of the IRS expansion as the most conservative anti-tax crusaders making appearances on Fox News and talk radio. The nation’s “top one percent,” after all, will continue to have access to their own army of lawyers and accountants ready to wage war against a newly energized (and funded) IRS — but the most disadvantaged among us will continue to be easy prey for the slew of federal agents hired to, quite literally, separate Americans from a portion of their hard-earned money. 

Those 87,000 new IRS employees aren’t going to be sending out larger refunds to working-class Americans or ensuring individuals receive every tax break to which they are entitled. Instead, they’ll be doing what the IRS has always done: Performing audits, launching investigations and garnishing wages. And low- and middle-income Americans will not magically be spared simply because a bunch of politicians made some promises while trying to court votes during an election year. 

Believing such promises is as foolish as having believed in the 1970’s that the war on drugs would only inconvenience cartels, criminals and addicts. Progressives, more than anyone else, should know better. 

Editor's note (6:35 p.m. on 8/16.22): An earlier version of this column incorrectly identified the 87,000 new full time IRS employees as 87,000 new IRS agents. It has been corrected to reflect that not all proposed new hires will be agents. 

Michael Schaus is a communications and branding consultant based in Las Vegas, Nevada, and founder of Schaus Creative LLC — an agency dedicated to helping organizations, businesses and activists tell their story and motivate change. He is the former communications director for Nevada Policy Research Institute and has more than a decade of experience in public affairs commentary as a columnist, political humorist, and radio talk show host. Follow him at SchausCreative.com or on Twitter at @schausmichael.

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