If House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa's faltering inquisition of the IRS seems familiar, it should. Back in the 1990s, Republicans demonized the agency, slashed its enforcement staff and, unsurprisingly, helped the growth of tax cheating which now costs Uncle Sam up to $500 billion in lost revenue annually. And as Reuters reported Saturday, history is repeating itself in one other disturbing respect: IRS officials are now receiving threats of violence.
Just days after Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) questioned why some IRS agents receive training in using AR-15 rifles ("Are Americans that much of a target that you need that kind of capability?"), Reuters revealed threats made against current and former IRS officials at the center of the supposed targeting of conservative non-profit "social welfare" groups:
Ousted IRS acting commissioner, Steven Miller, has received such threats, according to a source familiar with his situation. The source declined to elaborate on the nature or the source of the threats.Those threats have been reported to Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA). And while lower level Internal Revenue staff frequently face such dangers, the top brass are another matter:
And the head of the tax-exempt unit at the agency, Lois Lerner, who has been put on administrative leave as investigations into the controversy continue, has had telephone and email messages from unknown sources that "threaten physical violence," according to her attorney William Taylor.
Threats are nothing new for IRS workers. In their unpopular line of work, IRS agents face hundreds of threats annually, including death threats, TIGTA data shows.As a quick review of the past two decades shows, those armed escorts are provided with good reason. After all, Maine Republican Gov. Paul LePage is hardly the first member of his party to slander the IRS as "the new Gestapo."
But it is unusual for senior IRS executives to get personal threats, said Steve Walsh, a former agent with TIGTA who worked on security for some former commissioners. He is now a licensed private investigator in Los Angeles.
TIGTA provided armed escorts for IRS employees on 74 occasions in fiscal 2012 ended September 30. In the six months from October 2012 through March 2013, TIGTA provided 36 armed escorts to IRS agents.
As David Cay Johnston explained in his 2003 classic Perfectly Legal, the GOP during the Clinton administration waged an all-out war on the IRS. Then as now, GOP spinmeister Frank Luntz framed the issue for his Republican allies, "Which would you prefer: having your wallet or purse stolen or being audited by the IRS?" As Sen. William Roth's Finance Committee held hearings in 1997 and 1998, Mississippi's Trent Lott and Alaska's Frank Murkowski decried the IRS' "Gestapo-like tactics." Murkowski went on to complain, "You don't need to send in armed personnel in flak jackets." Don Nickles of Oklahoma raged, "The IRS is out of control!" Congress went on to pass and Bill Clinton signed the IRS Reform and Restructuring Act in 1998.
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As the New York Times recounted that spring, the plan to gut the IRS advocated by Phil Gramm and his allies was a popular political gambit, but almost certain to create incentives for tax evasion:
Mr. Gramm spoke at length of how he had ''no confidence'' in the I.R.S., remarks that were in sharp contrast to those of every other senator, who emphasized that the majority of I.R.S. workers were honest and most taxpayers law-abiding.Which, of course, is exactly what happened.
A variety of tax experts have said in recent weeks that attacks on the I.R.S., which polls show are a potent device to win votes and contributions for Republicans, give comfort to tax cheats and discourage honest taxpayers.
But the doubling of revenue lost to tax evasion, fraud and other schemes wasn't the only result of the Republican demagoguery of the Internal Revenue Service. Threats of violence against the jack-booted thugs from the IRS were a sadly predictable by-product.
As it turned out, the picture of an unaccountable praetorian guard at the IRS painted by Republicans simply wasn't true. As Johnston reported for the New York Times in 2000:
Two years ago, Congress, warned in hearings that the Internal Revenue Service was bullying many innocent Americans, passed a law requiring that the agency fire workers who harassed taxpayers.Former FBI director and Judge William Webster, who headed up an investigation ordered by Roth's Senate Committee, concluded, "No evidence was found of systematic abuses by agents." When a GAO inquiry similarly revealed "no corroborating evidence that the criminal investigations described at the hearing were retaliatory against the specific taxpayer," Sen. Roth tried to prevent its report from becoming public.
But not one of the first 830 complaints of taxpayer harassment filed under the new law has been upheld by the I.R.S. or its new Congressionally designated watchdog, according to new data.
Investigations by the I.R.S. and the watchdog, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, found evidence that some of the complaints were bogus -- made in an effort to derail audits and tax collections. Others were either without merit or involved misconduct that fell far short of the Congressional definition of harassment.
But the damage was already done. Not only was the IRS's ability to pursue tax fraud gutted, but the incendiary rhetoric about the agency Republicans introduced was quickly propagated among tax protestors nationwide. And as the Bush Justice Department documented, that included anti-tax terrorists:
On April 4, 2003, the FBI arrested David Roland Hinkson, a constitutionalist and tax protestor, for attempting to arrange the murders of a federal judge, an Assistant U.S. Attorney, and an IRS Agent whom he blamed for his legal problems regarding a tax evasion case against him. Between December 2002 and March 2003, Hinkson offered two individuals $10,000 for committing all three murders. On January 27, 2005, Hinkson was found guilty on three counts of solicitation to commit murder after a three week jury trial in Boise, Idaho. On June 3, 2005, Hinkson was sentenced to 43 years in federal prison.As it turned out, Hinkson owed over a million dollars in taxes on his dietary supplement business, Water Oz. Echoing the sentiment Stack expressed online today, Hinkson described the IRS raid he endured in 2002:
"I believe that...[government officials] orchestrated the raid on Water Oz and my home for the sole purpose of murdering me and ending the lawsuit that was filed against them by me."Disgruntled taxpayer Joseph Stack entertained similar thoughts. Declaring, "Well Mr. Big Brother IRS Man, let's try something different, take my pound of flesh and sleep well," Stack in February 2010 flew a small airplane into the IRS office in Austin, Texas. His suicide attack killed IRS employee and Vietnam veteran Vernon Hunter.
That fatal act against employees of our United States government should have been met with universal revulsion. Instead, among some Republicans it was greeted as an opportunity. Iowa Rep. Steve King offered this lesson from Stack's murderous terror attack on a U.S. federal building:
"It's sad the incident in Texas happened, but by the same token, it's an agency that is unnecessary and when the day comes when that is over and we abolish the IRS, it's going to be a happy day for America."Newly elected Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown similarly seemed to show sympathy for the devil:
"I don't know if it's related, but I can just sense not only in my election, but since being here in Washington, people are frustrated. They want transparency, they want their elected officials to be accountable and open and talk about the things that are affecting their daily lives. So I'm not sure that there's a connection, I certainly hope not. But we need to do things better."One of those things is to clarify the rules surrounding the tax-exempt status of partisan political groups of all stripes masquerading as "social welfare" organizations. President Obama and Democrats in Congress have been more than willing to investigate and punish any alleged IRS targeting of conservative groups. Now, we just need Republicans to stop giving rhetorical aid and comfort to those who would literally target IRS workers.