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As taxes come due, let's give the IRS some credit

By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Thursday, April 15, 2010; A21

You might imagine that if a terrorist attack killed an American public servant and threatened the lives of 200 people, it would have been big news for weeks and an enduring symbol of the risks taken by those who serve their country.

Yet when an American named Joseph Stack flew a plane into an office building in Austin in February, killing Vernon Hunter, a 68-year-old Vietnam veteran, the news reports were remarkably muted, and the story quickly disappeared.

Hunter worked for the Internal Revenue Service, which was housed in the Austin building, and according to Stack's suicide note, the IRS was his target.

On or about April 15, the Web and the commentary pages overflow with assaults on the IRS that cast its employees as jackbooted thugs, to use an old phrase, and our tax system as a form of oppression comparable to the exertions of the worst Russian czars and the most fiendish modern totalitarian dictators.

We should call this propaganda what it is: a sweeping falsehood that libels the work of committed federal employees such as Hunter.

Who are the men and women of the IRS? They are the people who collect the revenue that allows the government to finance our troops who are in harm's way, help our wounded warriors, pay Grandma's Medicare bills, cover the costs of keeping our food and drugs safe, and do so many of the other things the vast majority of us want our government to accomplish.

Yes, if you support our troops, you have to support the work of the Internal Revenue Service.

Champions of government's core functions have been far too timid in taking on the slanders directed against the IRS. When right-wingers tell IRS horror stories, progressive politicians are typically defensive: Well, sure, let's correct those abuses, but . . . mumble, mumble, mumble.

It's time to tell the truth: that our tax system allows enormous leeway for innocent mistakes, that IRS agents often help hard-pressed taxpayers work out reasonable ways of meeting their obligations and that our system provides, as it should, many avenues through which taxpayers can exercise their due-process rights.

And rarely is it pointed out that if we stop IRS employees from trying to collect the money owed by those who cheat on their taxes, we are only increasing the burden on honest taxpayers.

One attack on the recently passed health-care bill is that its mandate requiring individuals to buy insurance will be enforced by the IRS. In fact, the penalties for not buying insurance are low. Moreover, IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman told Congress that the IRS would not audit taxpayers to see if they had purchased coverage.

But really, is there another agency that would deal with the mandate with greater efficiency or fairness than the IRS? Of course every bureaucracy has its flaws, but we Americans have one of the most responsive and transparent tax-collection systems in the world. We should be proud of it.

In a speech this month at the National Press Club, Shulman told the story of Vernon Hunter. "He was a manager of revenue officers," Shulman said, "the people who go out in person to collect debts owed to the government. And while these are the very people who could be parodied as the prototypical IRS agent, they actually try to help people resolve their debts."

Shulman added this: "Vernon Hunter's son, Ken, said something profound, which captures the spirit of how people at the IRS view their job. Rather than show anger toward the man who killed his father, he simply said: 'If he would have talked to my dad, my dad would have helped him.' "

We rightly denounce those who offer rationalizations for terrorism. But shortly after Hunter died, here is what Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said of Joseph Stack at the Conservative Political Action Conference: "I think if we had abolished the IRS back when I first advocated it, he wouldn't have had a target for his airplane. . . . It's sad that the incident happened down in Texas, but by the same token, the IRS is an agency that's unnecessary."

Shame on King and shame on those who demagogue the work of the IRS. Vernon Hunter was a patriot who died serving his country. We should be grateful to him and to those who carry on his work.

ejdionne@washpost.com

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