A few weeks ago the House Republican Study Committee voted overwhelmingly to recommend abolishing the IRS. The committee called the Service "an inefficient behemoth weighing down our economy" and demanded its dissolution. The “work” of the IRS would be transferred to a new, smaller agency within Treasury. The IRS-bashing is nothing new, of course. And the anti-IRS crowd gets particularly excitable during election years.
I carry no water for the IRS. I think it badly needs reform. Its actions in the Lois Lerner affair were terrible, and it will pay a reputational price for years to come. The IRS has not been a model of efficiency or efficacy; witness its dismal record in dealing with citizens in recent years. But calls to abolish it are both silly and dangerous. Silly, because it won't happen -- you can't abolish the IRS without repealing virtually every revenue law. As long as we're taxing income, somebody has to collect it. The United States has a lot of tax laws, regulations, citizens, and revenue. It takes a lot of people to administer the tax laws. Talk of a smaller agency is nonsense without fundamentally changing the American government. Silly ideas can be shrugged off as political theater.
Abolishing the IRS would be dangerous because people dislike paying taxes, and they do it for two reasons. They accept the social contract that they are paying for some civilization. And they are required to pay under the law. For these reasons, tens of millions of Americans file their returns every year. And they do so with the belief that their government is doing right. When politicians attack the IRS, its leadership, and its employees, the public’s confidence in the system is shaken. When politicians imply that there is something inherently wrong with the IRS, people may not take their responsibility to pay taxes as seriously. This is a dangerous road to travel down.
The irony of the argument for abolishing the IRS is that the tax laws (including the administrative rulemaking) are the products of Congress. The true problem is the complicated, often onerous, tax laws that Congress created. To be sure, the actions of IRS personnel have been egregious at times. And those employees and their managers should be held to account. But repeated bashing of the agency and calls for its dissolution are unhelpful. The nation needs a constructive conversation about how it collects revenue.
David Brunori is deputy publisher at Tax Analysts. The views expressed in this article are his own.