Washington Watch: The politics of the IRS

The Internal Revenue Service is an easy target these days, what with its own targeting of tea party groups, its ridiculous “training” videos that spoof things like “Star Trek” and its seemingly excessive employee conferences.

This is all added on top of the belief that no one really likes the IRS in the first place.

So this week came as a good time for polarizing freshman U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to launch an online “Abolish the IRS” petition that had collected about 50,000 signatures as of Friday afternoon.

Cruz supports a flat tax proposal that he says would simplify the process, but which critics allege would increase taxes on the middle class and save money for the wealthy. There also could be collection-enforcement issues with states having more authority on federal collections.

One of the earliest politicians to tout signing the petition was Baton Rouge’s own, U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, who is running in 2014 as the top Republican challenger thus far to U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.

“I join Ted Cruz in calling for the end of the IRS,” Cassidy said in his original announcement. “Let’s replace it with something apolitical that does not have a mandate to enforce Obamacare. Our privacy and political freedoms should not be sacrificed.”

The Affordable Care Act health-care law, or Obamacare, is brought up because the IRS will be in charge of collecting penalties — “shared responsibility payments” — for those opting not to acquire minimum essential health insurance under the new law.

So that begs the question of whether Cassidy supports a flat tax plan, like Cruz, or more fundamental IRS reforms. Cassidy seems to fall more under the tear-it-down-to-build-it-back-up approach.

“If you strip them down and start over, you can strip out those portions which have pursued this political agenda and you can also strip it of its mandate to enforce Obamacare,” Cassidy said in a sit-down interview. “And that gives me tremendous concern — what are they going to do these expanded powers for Obamacare? I am just so concerned about that.

“If you’re a small business owner who’s opposed the (health care) bill and you get audited — you get special scrutiny — is anyone going to doubt that there could be a political reason for this increased scrutiny?” he continued. “People are so sanguine about this. I’m like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ We should all be so concerned about what’s about to take place.”

Cassidy is more mum though on the flat tax issue though. “My statement is not predicated on that (flat tax) debate,” Cassidy said. “I will make a statement on that when I’ve researched that more.”

He also does not claim to have all the answers on how the Affordable Care Act would be enforced without the IRS. “I want to replace it,” Cassidy said of the law.

As for the IRS, its leaders have denied breaking any laws or having any political motivations, although the agency has apologized for its improper approach. The argument is that IRS officials were focusing on scrutinizing potentially politically motivate groups that were applying for 501(c)(4) status as “social welfare” organizations.

Landrieu, on the other hand, has a different message for the “abolish” crowd: “Let’s do our work and not just put out press releases.”

She said the abolishing issue is a pointless political distraction that takes away from making the needed fixes.

“As aggravated as we all are with the IRS, that is a far-fetched idea and distracts us from the real work of fixing the IRS,” Landrieu said. “It just distracts us from doing that work that we need to do, which is to fix the IRS and to curb their excesses and to not tolerate that kind of targeting and abuse.”

Then there’s the somewhat awkward aspect of Cruz’s petition being funded by the far-right Senate Conservatives Fund, which refuses to endorse Cassidy because the group does not consider him conservative enough. The group is considering backing retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness, of the New Orleans area, who also is planning to run against Landrieu.

“His (Cassidy’s) record is too liberal and he’s going to have a difficult time giving voters a compelling reason to support him over Mary Landrieu,” Senate Conservative Fund Executive Director Matt Hoskins said in an online statement Friday. “They’re both Washington insiders who like big government policies.

Jordan Blum is chief of The Advocate Washington bureau. His email address is jblum@theadvocate.com.