A major federal union is urging the removal of election campaign advertisements “that deliberately lie about the IRS and its employees,” potentially putting them at risk.
“In today’s epidemic of political violence, I’m concerned about the safety of the employees we represent,” said Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, the government’s second largest labor organization, which represents IRS employees.
IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig said in an August message to staff that officials know of “threats directed at the IRS and its employees.” The agency, he added, is doing risk assessments “given the current environment” and “conducting a comprehensive review of existing safety and security measures.”
A report released last week by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration says “threat-related reports have rapidly increased” against the IRS, following approval of legislation increasing agency staffing and the return of workers to offices as the covid-19 pandemic slowed.
Union officials provided examples of the misleading ads — all supporting Republicans. They focus on reports that the IRS could hire 87,000 employees under the Inflation Reduction Act, signed by President Biden in August.
The ads are misleading because they push the false notion that the legislation authorizes 87,000 new IRS agents to harass working folks. First, the 87,000 number is a previous estimate of IRS hires over 10 years. They would not be on top of the current 78,000-person workforce, because the agency expects to lose 52,000 staffers through attrition in just five years.
Furthermore, most of the hires would not be agents auditing taxpayers. Some would be customer service employees, who would help improve an agency that has suffered from years of underfunding and understaffing. That contributed to long waits for telephone customer service, if calls were answered at all, and a tax collection shortfall of $600 billion annually, according to the IRS.
The ads reflect years of conservative antipathy toward the IRS and taxes generally, and a Republican belief that the legislation can be a useful midterm political campaign weapon against Biden and Democrats. The political spots include:
• A Wisconsin ad by Sen. Ron Johnson (R) that says his challenger, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes (D), “supports 87,000 new IRS agents coming after you.” Johnson’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
• A Republican National Committee spot that shows Fox News host Dana Perino, a former press secretary for President George W. Bush, speaking about fears of giving “the tax man unprecedented power to snoop on all your bank accounts.” Another voice warns against “empowering the IRS to chase the majority of those families who are the essence in the backbone of our economy.” The committee did not respond to a request for comment.
• A Senate Leadership Fund ad that says Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) “voted to hire 87,000 new IRS employees to dig even deeper in middle-class pockets.” The fund is allied with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The fund’s commercial cited by NTEU is not now being used, but “even still, we stand by the veracity of our ad,” a spokesman said.
• An advertisement by Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.), who says his Senate campaign opponent, Cheri Beasley, a former state Supreme Court justice, supports “87,000 more IRS agents … to harass small businesses and working people.” A spokesperson for Budd said the union is “playing partisan politics.”
• A Club for Growth Action commercial against Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) that features actors in dark business suits marching in military formation. A voice-over says: “Cortez Masto spends, then sics her massive IRS on middle-class families to pay for it.” The organization promotes conservative economic policies.
Club for Growth President David McIntosh pointed to a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report that says “some of the increased revenues will be collected from taxpayers with income less than $400,000.” His email, however, did not mention the report’s statement that, in “CBO’s estimation, the IRS will comply with the [Treasury] Secretary’s directive regarding the share of audits devoted to small businesses or households with income less than $400,000.”
That directive, outlined in an August letter from Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen to Rettig, said: “Specifically, I direct that any additional resources — including any new personnel or auditors that are hired — shall not be used to increase the share of small business or households below the $400,000 threshold that are audited relative to historical levels. This means that, contrary to the misinformation from opponents of this legislation, small business or households earning $400,000 per year or less will not see an increase in the chances that they are audited.”
Yellen also said that “for regular taxpayers … the result of this resource infusion will be a lower likelihood of audit by an agency that has the data and technological infrastructure in place to target enforcement resources where they belong — on the high end of the income distribution, where the top 1% alone is estimated to not be paying $160 billion in owed taxes each year.”
McIntosh said “the claims made by Yellen and the IRS special interest group [meaning NTEU] are partisan lies.”
None of the sponsoring organizations backed away from the ads in the face of NTEU criticism or agreed to remove them. NTEU supports Democrats in the Wisconsin, Nevada, Georgia and North Carolina Senate races. In this election cycle, the union’s political action committee has contributed more than $300,000 to congressional candidates, with about 95 percent of that to Democrats, according to Thursday’s report from Open Secrets, which tracks campaign spending.
“House and Senate candidates across the country are using deceit and fear to try to win elections,” Reardon complained. “For the safety of the IRS workforce, I call on these candidates and political committees to take down their ads that misrepresent IRS employees and their role in our democracy.”