The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats can counter GOP warnings about ‘armies’ of tax collectors

An alternative tradition in our politics has long helped convince Americans that tax enforcement is good.

Internal Revenue Service 1040 individual income tax forms for 2021. (Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg News)
7 min

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

That’s the message coming from Republicans as they warn Americans about President Biden’s “shadow army” of gun-toting, freedom-crushing … tax auditors?

“Democrats’ new army of 87,000 IRS agents will be coming for you,” warned House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) last month. “How long until Democrats send the IRS ‘SWAT team’ after your kids’ lemonade stand?” wondered GOP chair Ronna McDaniel.

While this rhetoric may seem overheated, it’s effective. According to a recent Morning Consult/Politico poll, voters support every major provision of the Inflation Reduction Act except one: $80 billion in new funding for the IRS.

Indeed, the IRS hasn’t pleased many people since it was first established during the Civil War. Critics have attacked it for being heavy-handed, inquisitorial, bureaucratic and just too big. Those attacks have resonated with a powerful and persistent anti-statist strain in American political culture.

Republicans, in other words, have history on their side.

But history isn’t destiny, and Democrats eager to defend the agency (or at least its funding) might consider tapping into a different long-standing strain of American political culture: the tradition of fiscal citizenship. Like anti-statism, this tradition tends to surface in tax debates, but to opposite ends — to actually encourage tax collection. Fiscal citizenship urges all Americans to pay their fair share to fund the necessary functions of government and at various moments in history it has won out in this debate between American philosophies.

The task of countering Republican rhetoric won’t be easy, as attacks on the IRS have been remarkably consistent over time. Strikingly, today’s criticism of the agency could have been leveled in almost any American era since the Civil War. In particular, critics have shown a penchant for military metaphors, talking about “armies,” “invasions” and the occasional “strike force” to malign tax collection.

In 1862, as Congress debated the creation of the agency, Rep. George Pendleton (D-Ohio) urged his fellow lawmakers not to establish an “immense army of Federal tax gatherers.” Showing that this sentiment was bipartisan, Rep. Roscoe Conkling (R-N.Y.), went even further. “No army that ever marched through the country,” he predicted, “was more hated than the army provided for in this bill.” Strong words, especially with Confederate armies poised for their first invasion of the Northern states, just two months later.

Nevertheless, Congress moved ahead with plans for a new Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR), convinced that it was necessary to collect the nation’s first income tax and fund the Union’s Civil War efforts. Lawmakers embraced the rationale of House Ways and Means Chair Thaddeus Stevens (R-Pa.), who knew how to co-opt a metaphor.

“I know that the army of collectors are odious everywhere,” he told his colleagues. But Stevens also asserted that they were “not quite so dangerous” to his constituents or his colleagues “as the army of rebels that renders this other army necessary.” Only creating an army of tax collectors could prevent a Confederate triumph.

The income tax disappeared after the Civil War, only to return in 1913 with passage of the Sixteenth Amendment. But it remained a narrow tax, paid by the nation’s most fortunate few, until the 1940s. Only then, when faced with the extraordinary fiscal demands of World War II, did lawmakers agree to transform it from a class tax to a mass tax.

Perhaps it’s not surprising then that while critics continued to deploy army metaphors to warn ominously about tax collectors, they added a new scare tactic to describe efforts to collect taxes from Americans — one that fit the times — claiming that federal tax collectors behaved like the agents of a fascist police state.

Consider this episode from 1953. On July 29, as Boston commuters were finding their way to work, 280 employees of the newly rebranded Internal Revenue Service were fanning out across the city. These revenue agents were knocking on doors, conducting a house-to-house search for tax delinquents.

Similar searches took place across New England, but everywhere the procedure was the same. IRS workers would knock on the door of every building on a street. When someone answered, the agents would ask whether that person had filed a tax return. If the answer was yes, the agents asked for proof.

“Like most income-tax enforcement techniques, this was a psychological weapon,” Time magazine observed. And the weapon worked. IRS Commissioner T. Coleman Andrews said the agency was collecting $24 for every $1 spent on the canvassing program.

Critics, mostly lawmakers from the canvassed regions, were outraged. Rep. Philip J. Philbin (D-Mass.) called the enforcement blitz “an abhorrent method of tax gouging and snooping.” Indeed, he said, it “smacks of the Gestapo and OGPU [Soviet secret police] methods of the police state.” Other lawmakers, including Rep. Albert Paul Morano (R-Conn.) and Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers (R-Mass.), used similar language to lambaste the program.

But not all Americans shared this outrage. In one poll by the American Institute for Public Opinion, 53 percent of people endorsed the door-to-door hunt for delinquents. Pollster George Gallup offered some choice comments from respondents. One asserted the move was, “the only way to prevent tax dodging.” A second said, “those who’ve paid won’t object,” while a third saw the government as “entitled to the taxes.”

These comments, while anecdotal, revealed something important: While New England politicians were channeling anti-statist rage, a second language existed in which to consider the enforcement action — one rooted in traditions of fiscal citizenship and shared responsibility.

This tradition was familiar to Americans living in 1953, thanks mostly to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Throughout his presidency, Roosevelt emphasized the network of rights and responsibilities that bound taxpayers to the state — and to one another.

Roosevelt always preferred to frame tax issues in terms of personal tax responsibility — even technical issues, like the taxation of corporate profits. He defended new tax provisions as a way to close old “loopholes,” emphasizing the moral failure of those who didn’t contribute their “fair share.”

Roosevelt recognized no moral distinction between legal tax avoidance and illegal tax evasion. “All are alike in that failure to pay results in shifting the tax load to the shoulders of others less able to pay,” he told Congress in a special message on tax reform.

Roosevelt delighted in citing the famous observation by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr: “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.” But he followed up with a warning to lawmakers. Too many individuals, he declared, “want the civilization at a discount.”

This sort of language, rooted in notions of shared responsibility, proved powerful while fighting the Great Depression and World War II. And as the Massachusetts example reveals, it continued to shape the thoughts of Americans after Roosevelt died in 1945, helping to fund the Cold War as well. It blunted the anti-statist language wielded by politicians like Philbin, Morano and Rogers and enabled liberal policymakers to expand government services — beginning with Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s and continuing with President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” reforms in the 1960s.

This tradition of fiscal citizenship provides a road map for Democrats in 2022 who are worried about being bludgeoned by Republican scare tactics and warnings about hostile armies of tax collectors.

The rhetoric of fiscal citizenship isn’t a magic bullet, of course. Tax collectors will still have a hard time winning popularity contests. Nonetheless, history indicates that even if Americans don’t relish the idea of beefed-up tax enforcement, this rhetoric might convince them to agree with another anonymous poll respondent from 1953 who simply stated: “Everyone should pay his taxes.”