Republicans go to town on Dems’ IRS funding boost
Republicans are hammering the IRS — and the $80 billion Democrats recently pushed through for the agency — as they try to drive turnout in next month’s midterm elections.
They’re spending millions in the waning weeks of the campaign on ads in races in Georgia, Arizona, Nevada and elsewhere, amping up their questionable assertions that the funding will translate into an army of tax collectors targeting average Americans.
“They will come after you,” says one spot running against Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa).
The attacks exaggerate the number of enforcement agents the administration intends to hire, and ignore Democrats’ promises they will be focused on high earners.
The ads are designed to do two things, said Robert Blizzard, a Republican pollster at Public Opinion Strategies.
First, they’re aimed at galvanizing Republican voters who already tend to be suspicious of the IRS.
And it’s also a way to appeal to independents, Blizzard said, by arguing Democrats have had the wrong priorities — focusing on tax collections instead of things voters really care about like soaring prices.
“While Democrats have had control of D.C. for two years, things have gotten far worse for Americans, and the government’s answer is, ‘We are hiring more IRS agents,'” he said.
The campaign highlights how, though Republicans have lambasted the IRS funding for months, that doesn’t mean they aren’t benefiting from it. Many were quietly pleased with the budget increase, figuring it would give them plenty of fodder for the campaign trail.
The attacks also underscore how the fight over the IRS’s budget isn’t going to end anytime soon, especially if Republicans retake the House or Senate.
The $80 billion, which is intended to be spent over the next decade, was intended to shore up the IRS after years of tight budgets and remove some of the uncertainty over its funding. But if anything, it will likely up the stakes over the agency’s budget, particularly the portion that still must be approved each year by Congress.
Democrats haven’t focused nearly as much on the IRS money in their election campaigns, though they scoff at the Republican ads, saying the money is intended to improve customer service and crack down on wealthy tax cheats.
And Democrats up for reelection this year don’t need to worry too much about the ads, said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who’s been studying the attacks.
She said they’re mostly a way for Republicans to motivate their base.
Lake agrees Democrats are vulnerable to charges they haven’t focused enough on things like inflation, but says the IRS is the wrong way to make that point with most people.
“It is something that some voters have doubts about, but this is not the best example for that,” she said.
“When you say the IRS is going after wealthy individuals and big corporations who have all these accountants and lobbyists to avoid taxes, they’re happy about it,” said Lake, president of Lake Research Partners.
The ads, sponsored by Republicans’ official campaign organizations as well as outside groups like the Senate Leadership Fund and Club for Growth Action, distort Democrats’ plans in a few ways.
They claim the administration intends to hire an additional 87,000 agents, pointing to a Treasury Department report issued early last year. But the administration subsequently said many of those people would replace tens of thousands of IRS workers who will become eligible for retirement in the next few years.
Many of those people won’t be in enforcement — the administration has announced it will use the money to hire 5,000 customer service representatives, though it hasn’t spelled out what all the other people would be doing.
And the administration is also pledging it won’t increase audit rates for people making less than $400,000.
At the same time, though, there are plenty of unanswered questions about its plans.
The IRS already gets roughly $13 billion each year from Congress to pay the salaries of its 80,000 employees, so it shouldn’t need the additional $80 billion to replace people who retire. The administration envisions the agency getting larger — its headcount is one-third smaller than it was 30 years ago — but it hasn’t said how big it wants the department to ultimately be.
It’s also unclear how the agency will ensure audit rates don’t go up for average people, which could be tricky.
The Treasury Department, which the IRS is a part of, is working on a detailed spending plan for the money that’s due in February.
The $80 billion was the least popular component of the climate, health care and tax bill Democrats approved in August, according to a Politico/Morning Consult poll.
Healthy majorities said they back many of its provisions — 76 percent said they support its cap on increases in drug prices while 66 percent said they liked the expanded green energy tax breaks for consumers.
By contrast, just 40 percent said they thought the additional IRS funding was a good idea, with 46 percent opposed.
Still, most people said they aren’t worried about being audited, with just 24 percent saying they were at least somewhat concerned about increased IRS scrutiny. (The chances of being audited are slim — the agency audited .25 percent of taxpayers in 2019).
After campaigning against the IRS money, Republicans will be under pressure to do something about it should they come back to power.
House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said last month that rescinding the $80 billion will be the first thing Republicans do, though President Joe Biden would surely veto that.
The IRS will still be dependent on annual appropriations from Congress for part of its budget, which Republicans could instead target to try to counteract the Democrats’ infusion of funding.
And they are already developing a laundry list of other proposals to go after the agency.
Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the chamber’s No. 2 Republican, and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) want to withhold the agency’s enforcement money until it meets some tough benchmarks for improved customer service.
Thune and fellow tax writer Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) are also preparing legislation that would require the administration’s coming blueprint for the money to be subject to a vote in Congress. Others want to put into law that audit rates won’t increase for people under $400,000.
In the meantime, Democrats are trying to push through another funding boost for the agency, in addition to the $80 billion, as they try to make up for thin budgets over much of the past decade. They want an 8 percent hike for 2023 as part of a sweeping “omnibus” spending plan lawmakers hope to pass before Christmas.
That would come on top of the 6 percent increase approved for 2022.
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