U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee, is a staunch conservative but isn’t as prone as some to let ideology run him off the rails. So his response to the IRS scandal is instructive. “With the power to tax comes the power to destroy,” he said in a statement, “and when the agency with that power becomes corrupt, we have a responsibility to tear it down and start over.”
In fact, the IRS was in need of a tear down and do-over long before the Cincinnati office typed “tea party” into its search engines. Who should have carried out the overhaul? Congress, of course. Even if Congress took on the task now, the odds are that the same forces that produced the current IRS sooner or later would warp a reformed agency into a facsimile of the beast under justified attack today.
The IRS can’t just go away. The agency, or something like it, always will be needed to collect the money government needs to function. Even in Paul Ryan’s fantasies, that is trillions of dollars per decade. Folks — and the “folks” known as corporations — aren’t just going to send that in voluntarily any more than Floridians voluntarily send in the sales taxes due on Amazon purchases.
Then there are the fantasies that if America only adopted a pure flat tax or a simple tax on consumption the IRS — and tax forms — could shrink drastically. But such schemes either don’t raise enough money or they are patently unfair, hitting the poorest the hardest. So, of course, there would have to be exemptions and exceptions and formulas. And while Congress is at it, shouldn’t the tax code be jiggled to encourage this activity and discourage that one?
And once the tax code can be fiddled with, there will be lobbyists whose business is to make sure it is fiddled with in ways that benefit their clients who, it goes without saying, are people who have money but would rather spend it gaining influence than paying taxes.
The IRS didn’t decide that Apple should have multiple ways to lower the company’s taxes. Congress did that. The IRS did not decide to give tax advantages to groups that spend a bare majority of their donations on activities that comply with the pretense of “social welfare.” Congress did that.
That doesn’t mean Congress never gets it right. In 1986, Congress worked with President Ronald Reagan to significantly reform the tax code. Even as the ink was drying, special interests were working to corrupt it. By now, it is once again rife with favors and unfairness.
By all means, tear down the IRS and start over. Flatten the brackets, curtail the exemptions, relieve the agency of its obligation to make any judgments about political speech. But don’t think America can do away with the IRS. And don’t smugly assume that, within a decade or two, IRS officials won’t be back before Congress taking the Fifth.
Jac Wilder VerSteeg
for The Post Editorial Board