August 19, 2011

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R-Minn.) used to work as a lawyer for the Internal Revenue Service. Now she’s running for president and discovering, apparently, that not everyone loves the IRS. So this week she came up with a novel explanation for the principal job she’s held outside of elected office.

“I went to work in that system because the first rule of war is ‘know your enemy,’ ” Ms. Bachmann told a crowd in South Carolina on Thursday.

As Post blogger Greg Sargent pointed out, this was a change from the explanation that Ms. Bachmann normally offers for her résumé. In the past, she has said that her four years as an attorney representing the IRS gave her insights into the tax code and why it must be reformed. The notion that from the start she was infiltrating a system she considered to be “the enemy” seems to be a new spin.

But our objection to her statement goes beyond the fact that it may not be true and beyond the bellicose language. We find it disturbing that someone seeking to lead this country and become its government’s CEO would view any of its agencies as the enemy and government service as honorable only if it takes the form of undercover opposition.

Respecting the IRS isn’t the same as loving the tax code. If Ms. Bachmann thinks that this country has an irrational, confusing, loophole-laden tax law, well, join the party. Who doesn’t? If she thinks the nation is overtaxed, she is entitled to that opinion, too.

But the Internal Revenue Service and the 107,621 (as of fiscal 2010) people who work there aren’t responsible for the law or the level of taxation. For those, you can thank Ms. Bachmann and her fellow members of Congress.

And anyone who has lived or worked overseas knows that the United States is fortunate in its tax collector. The IRS may make mistakes, and its employees may not always be as polite as they should be. But on balance it is honest, apolitical and efficient. According to IRS data, the agency spends just 53 cents for every $100 it collects.

“The IRS is the foundation for all that our nation is capable of,” the agency says on one of its Web sites, “and we’re depending on bright, capable citizens like you to achieve our goals. Use your talents to serve the American public and fund its future. You really can help make our nation a better place.”

The IRS is right: Everything the government does depends on impartial revenue collection. And the agency, like the rest of the government, should be inviting bright people into its workforce. Leaders who talk about going to war with the government in the end bring more disrepute on themselves than on the bureaucracy they are disparaging.