John Oliver in defense of the IRS

Once again John Oliver and the staff of HBO’s Last Week Tonight offer up a segment that’s entertaining, informative, and even important. This time he talks about the Internal Revenue Service, the part of the federal government tasked with enforcing the tax laws passed by Congress, not to mention taking the blame for them and for the other problems Congress causes for the agency by slashing its budget. Here’s the clip, which runs 20 minutes including a song from a Grammy winner, after which I’ll add my own two cents plus tax.


As Oliver says, the IRS doesn’t make tax law, and its employees suffer more than anybody from the laws’ complexity, not to mention the constant changes coming from Congress, which lately average, no kidding, almost a dozen revisions every week. When taxpayers call for help and can’t get it, the culprit is less the IRS itself than the fact that the Republicans in Congress have succeeded in slashing its budget by about 20 percent in the past few years.

Reducing the IRS budget doesn’t even save the government money, because each $1 cut from the IRS results in the loss of about $6 in taxes that would otherwise be collected. If you really care about shrinking the deficit, not to mention going after tax cheats who don’t pay their fair share, it doesn’t make sense to cut funds for enforcing the law and helping taxpayers deal with the complicated rules.

I do have one quibble with what Oliver says: Yes, it’s true that the Cincinnati office of the IRS investigated a number of organizations applying for 501(c)(4) tax exempt status, some of the aggressively, and most of those organizations were affiliated with the Tea Party movement or other conservative political positions. What Oliver doesn’t say is that that 501(c)(4) status is explicitly for non-political organizations such as neighborhood associations, volunteer fire departments, and the like. The Tea Party groups were applying for this status primarily to be able to conceal the identities of major donors, which political groups are generally supposed to make public. From what I’ve read, it seems true that some of the information demanded from some of the groups was ridiculous, but it shouldn’t be overlooked that the groups really shouldn’t have been allowed to get away with claiming 501(c)(4) status. In the end, the IRS was far too generous toward them.

(Updated as I often end up doing in a effort to fix typos, poor wording, and the like.)

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