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John Dickerson: IRS got dose of own medicine

  • Slate
  • Published Friday, June 27, 2014, at 12 a.m.

Anyone who has ever kicked a trash can across a room after trying to get the Internal Revenue Service to explain a tax rule, or been through one of its exfoliating audits, gained a champion in Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., last week. At a House Ways and Means Committee hearing investigating how the IRS lost thousands of e-mails sought by congressional investigators, the Wisconsin congressman lost it. He emptied his frustration and anger over IRS Commissioner John Koskinen like he was flushing a radiator.

“You are the Internal Revenue Service. You can reach into the lives of hardworking taxpayers and with a phone call, an e-mail or a letter, you can turn their lives upside down. You ask taxpayers to hang on to seven years of their personal tax information in case they are ever audited, and you can’t keep six months’ worth of employee e-mails?”

It’s the IRS’ business to be in our business – so Ryan is giving them the business. It’s hard to think of a federal agency that is less forgiving about record keeping. If you are audited, the IRS wants you to move fast. Not only do you have to keep your records for years, as Ryan says, but the IRS wants you to move quick like a bunny. And the entire process has one subliminal message to it: “I don’t believe you.”

That is exactly what Ryan said to the IRS commissioner, who took umbrage. Now he knows how it feels. It’s not Koskinen who lost the e-mails, he’s just on the wrong side of a bad policy that doesn’t require the IRS to be as records-conscious as the citizens it polices. But in the traditional IRS power relationship, it’s usually the subjects of its audits who feel the unfocused and overly harsh attention of a system that assumes they are guilty.

One of the big complaints I hear from voters, particularly conservative voters, is that the government exempts itself from the burdens it puts on everyday people. So members of Congress are treated differently under the Affordable Care Act than regular citizens, President Obama can decide which laws he wants to follow and which ones he doesn’t, and the IRS doesn’t have to be as circumspect as the rest of us. Sometimes there are good explanations, like the congressional “exemption” from the Affordable Care Act, but since the IRS is stingy with its benefit-of-the-doubt powers, it has a high bar with the public.

Democrats mocked the elaborate displays of outrage at the hearing – always a safe thing to do – but you don’t have to share Ryan’s view that the IRS is engaged in a cover-up of a scheme to target conservatives to recognize a more universal element to Ryan’s anger. The IRS expects all of us to maintain rigid compliance, spelunk-on-demand for every receipt, and is highly skeptical of what might be garden-variety mistakes until we prove otherwise. So if the congressional system of inquiry feels a little itchy, tight and irrational, perhaps this will be a learning opportunity or a good topic for the next pricey conference.

John Dickerson is Slate’s chief political correspondent.

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