- - Sunday, May 8, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

If reformers ever clean up the Internal Revenue Service they’ll need the biggest broom in town. Under President Obama, who inspired a hope for change in Washington eight years ago, the Internal Revenue Service has used its unchallenged power and authority as a weapon to harass the president’s political and ideological opponents in ways that no previous president would have dared.

Congressional overseers have demanded to know the reasons why, and the leaders of the IRS have obfuscated, misdirected, and invoked their constitutional right not to cooperate for fear of self-incrimination. John Koskinen, the plain-vanilla functionary the White House found to lead the agency in the aftermath of the various scandals, has proven to be just what the president ordered, a reliable acolyte eager to do nothing beyond making the bureaucracy grow.

Mr. Koskinen announced last week that his agency had found the money to hire 700 new employees to enhance its ability to harass taxpayers. The IRS doesn’t need more auditors, unless it’s to audit the behavior of IRS employees.

After five straight years of budget cuts, Congress finally fattened the agency budget by $290 million to pay for improvements in taxpayer service, cybersecurity, and protections against identity theft.

Mr. Koskinen says the money for new enforcers comes from savings achieved through retirements, other departures, and “efficiencies” he cites, but did not identify, these savings in a memo sent to his bureau colleagues last week. This is an accounting gimmick transparent on its face, much in the way of the famous mayor, forced by his aldermen to cut appropriations to the mayor’s favorite agencies, who announced that he found the savings by closing the orphanage.

The idea that Mr. Koskinen has suddenly found a cache of unspent cash to hire hundreds of new auditors is about as credible as a claim that he has found Elvis, alive and living well in Lower Slobbovia. The agency is rife with scandal and problems, including a computer hack that exposed the confidential information — Social Security numbers, dates of birth, home addresses, and income levels — of more than 100,000 law-abiding U.S. taxpayers. If that isn’t a result of criminality, it’s proof of administrative incompetence.

House Speaker Paul Ryan says a “new culture” is needed at the IRS. A dead fish, as the adage colorfully puts it, rots from the head down. Federal agencies, too. Rot at the top means trouble below, which is why Mr. Koskinen hears voices that he must go. Rep. Jason Chaffetz of California, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, urges that Mr. Koskinen be impeached. There’s been no rush for anyone to join him. Everybody, even congressmen, are afraid of the IRS.

“Right now,” says Speaker Ryan, “we have a tax code that no one can understand enforced by an agency that no one trusts. We need an IRS — and a tax code — that works for the taxpayer.” Tax reform may depend on it, and so does the idea of restoring the integrity of what is regarded now as an indispensable government agency.

Whether Mr. Koskinen’s stewardship of the tax agency rises to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors is something that only Congress can determine. What is clear to everyone is that the IRS is an agency out of control, with no one to call it to account. The American taxpayer deserves better, a lot better.

 

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