- For opinion writers, it takes a special sort of gumption to deliberately antagonize your most loyal readers. In that spirit, this week’s Profile in Editorial Courage award goes to Patrick Brennan of The National Review, who recently dared to defend the existence of the IRS.
Brennan was moved to his act of heresy by Sen. Ted Cruz’s call to abolish the IRS. The idea, Brennan acknowledged, is popular on the stump, which is where Cruz spends a lot of time these days as he campaigns for the GOP presidential nomination. But popularity is not an indicator of quality, at least when it comes to political ideas, and in this case, Brennan contends, “the idea probably isn’t feasible and has almost no merits as a public policy.”
That assessment didn’t sit well with Brennan’s readers, judging by the comments on the National Review website. And neither did Brennan’s attempt at defending it, which relied heavily on the opinions of various experts, “most of them right of center.” Apparently, National Review readers aren’t impressed by experts of any political stripe.
Still, Brennan makes a decent effort to take Cruz seriously, probing the substance of his breezy suggestion.
- The basic idea, according to Cruz’s speeches and a conversation I had with a Cruz adviser, is this: If you radically simplify the individual-income-tax code, you can reduce the size of the federal tax-collection bureaucracy so much that you could then get rid of the IRS and disperse its functions across other agencies.
- A Cruz administration will dismantle the IRS and distribute the remaining responsibilities across the rest of the federal government. “If [tax reform is] done correctly under a Cruz administration, there would be no need for the IRS,” the adviser says. “The remaining responsibilities for collecting tax revenue would be dispersed throughout existing agencies.”
- So the federal government wouldn’t end up with many fewer tax collectors, but they’d be working for different agencies. Can we do that — ditch the IRS itself for a different set of tax collectors, either in a new agency or in existing federal offices? Yes, we can, but it’s not clear why it’s a good idea, except that it sounds great on the stump.
However an obsessive focus on IRS misdeeds ultimately distracts from larger, much more important questions about tax policy. If scrutiny of the IRS were accompanied by serious talk about serious tax reform, that would be fine. But all too often, attacks on the IRS are a substitute for any meaningful talk about remaking the tax system.
In Cruz’s case, the senator claims to have a plan for tax reform. Apparently it’s a flat tax of some sort (not a national sales tax, like the one he’s repeatedly sponsored in Congress). But Cruz hasn’t bothered to provide any specifics about his new fiscal panacea, except to say that it will be so simple that it won’t require an IRS to operate it.
As Brennan points out, however, meaningful tax reform – including the kind popular among conservatives – will necessarily require the existence of an IRS. Or a renamed, re-branded agency that functions more or less identically to the current tax collector. When Cruz talks about abolishing the IRS, he’s suggesting nothing more than bureaucratic reshuffling. Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post has made much the same point:
- Changing the title of an agency and its reporting chain is about as cynical as one can get, and all too typical of inside-the-Beltway thinking (odd coming from Cruz). Second, whether it is called the IRS or the Agency Formerly Known as the IRS, someone is going to have to determine whether income is all reported, whether those deductions will be valid, etc. The IRS isn’t going away under Cruz’s scheme.