Tax Analysts Blog

Abolish the IRS? Good Luck With That

Posted on Apr 29, 2015
    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.
    The Cruz adviser had even more to say:
        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.”
    This elaboration did not impress Brennan.
        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.
    But the stump is the point, of course. Cruz understands that beating up on the IRS is a surefire path to primary popularity. And the IRS makes it easy, with plenty of unforced errors, poor performance, and a bunker mentality that irritates almost everyone.

    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.
    Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic may be satisfying, but the IRS – and the tax system– need more serious attention. Maybe some sort of flat tax is the answer (although I doubt it). Or maybe it’s some sort of more progressive tax on consumption. Or a vastly simplified income tax. Or a value-added tax. But whatever the solution, it will certainly require an IRS. Maybe, as Brennan points out, an even bigger, more robust IRS than we have today.

Read Comments (3)

edmund dantesApr 29, 2015

"Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic may be satisfying"

What would be satisfying would be de-weaponization of the IRS, elimination of
political corruption, and accountability for the many crimes committed at the
IRS during the Obama years. It's not just "unforced errors, poor performance,
and a bunker mentality," and it's more than Lerner and her cohorts targeting
those perceived as political enemies. There have been criminal leaks of
taxpayer information. There has been blatant, repeated lying to Congress.

Today CNN reports that TIGTA has found more than 6,000 Lerner e-mails that
Koskinen swore were absolutely, irretrievably lost. Contrary to his testimony,
no one at IRS even looked for the e-mails, they went straight to the "bad hard
drive" coverup story. Consequences? Bueller? Bueller? At a minimum, Koskinen
must be fired for his false testimony. He won't be.

When Cruz says "eliminate the IRS" he is using a politically digestible
short-hand. What he really wants is to fire those at the IRS who have badly
abused their positions, but evidently he can't do that under existing civil
service rules. He wants to have a world where no IRS employee is allowed to
claim the Fifth when asked about job performance. That also is not possible
today.

When Lyndon Johnson became frustrated by bureaucrats who were not being
responsive to him, he responded by creating new agencies with new staffers who
were more sympathetic to his aims. That, in substance, is what Cruz proposes,
but that's too subtle to be explained in a sound bite. He wants to break up
the political cabal that has turned the IRS into the sorry mess it has become,
redistributing personnel across others agencies presumably free of the politics
that today infects the IRS.

Until the IRS is fixed, it is pointless to discuss "meaningful tax reform."
They cannot be trusted to implement it.

Bubba ShawnApr 30, 2015

Both Republicans and Democrats are addicted to spending taxpayer money with
abandon and disregard to macroeconomic consequences.

IRS employees and sleep easy at night knowing that their jobs are secure.

edmund dantesMay 5, 2015

As if it were needed, here is more proof of the politicization of the IRS under
Obama.

The one ray of hope in this mess is that IRS didn't shred the files or "lose"
them in a hard drive crash. The incriminating marginal notes were also
preserved. At least someone at IRS didn't join the cover-up, even if they
stonewalled for 14 months.

Not one dime of budget increase until this crime is investigated and someone
held accountable!

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