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News / Opinion / Columns
The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Jayne: Conservatives off-base with IRS

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: October 16, 2022, 6:02am

Given the strident political dogma of modern times and the easily spread lies of the misinformation age, this shouldn’t be surprising. Yet, it is.

It is surprising how often a simple and necessary and beneficial idea can be turned upside down by political rhetoric. How often politicians can twist something that would help Americans into a wedge issue. How often those Americans can be convinced to vote against their own self-interests out of a sense of tribal unity.

There are many examples of this, of course. But for now we are talking about the plan to add 87,000 employees to the Internal Revenue Service. Well, at least Tiffany Smiley is talking about it.

Smiley, a Republican, is running for the U.S. Senate. And during a joint interview last week with Sen. Patty Murray and The Columbian’s Editorial Board, she tried to make an issue of the fact the IRS is increasing its forces.

The point, apparently, is that scary IRS agents are going to barge into your bank account and seize your hard-earned money. Or something like that. Which would be scary if it were true.

But it’s not.

The 87,000 figure comes from a 2021 Treasury report about addressing the “tax gap” — the difference between what is owed to the government and what is actually paid — and how many employees are needed to close that cavern. The gap is estimated to be at least $381 billion a year, most of it because of underreported income, according to the nonpartisan Joint Tax Committee.

In other words, there is about $1,154 for each American that goes unpaid. We’re pretty sure that you and your spouse pay all of your taxes. That means some scofflaw is underpaying by $3,462. We’re guessing that the couple next door pays, as well, meaning the scofflaw is underpaying by $5,770. And the odds are that the 25 people who live on your street pay their taxes, meaning that one rogue is getting off scot-free with $28,850 in unpaid taxes year after year.

In truth, reports suggest that the truly wealthy avoid paying hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in taxes through lying and cheating and fudging the numbers. After all, they can afford to pay accountants and attorneys to do that for them. Why else would they not want to release their tax returns when running for president?

Now, we could talk about the absurdity of tax laws that allow Jeff Bezos to report $4.22 billion in income while his net worth increased by $99 billion from 2014-18, according to ProPublica. But for now we’re talking about our ability to collect what is owed us.

Because that’s what taxes are — money that is owed to us. Taxes are a payment toward the public good, agreed upon by the people we elect to represent us. And we use those payments for the military, for border security, for investments in the economy, for vaccines when an unexpected pandemic arrives, for a social safety net when our neighbors need one, and for roads and ports that deliver food and goods to our doors. We can even use them to build bridges, if we ever get around to it.

Decades of disinvestment in the IRS have made it easier for scofflaws to avoid making those agreed-upon payments. And an estimated 50,000 IRS employees — about half the staff — are eligible for retirement in the next five years, further diminishing the agency’s ability to collect taxes. It also diminishes the ability to process your taxes and get refunds to you in a timely fashion.

Somehow, conservatives have managed to suggest that a dysfunctional IRS is good for Americans. Somehow, they have managed to scare people into believing that the IRS is coming for you, which really shouldn’t be a concern if you pay your taxes. Somehow, they have convinced people to vote against their own self-interests and allow scofflaws to game the system.

But for each dollar of additional spending on enforcement, the IRS estimates that it collects an average of $5 in revenue. And that, not surprisingly, sounds like a worthy investment that benefits all of us.