The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Another Republican lie is born

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) listens as Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) speaks during a news conference in Washington on Aug. 2. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

So many lies, so little time.

It is impossible to keep up with the volume of disinformation churned out by the MAGA-occupied Republican Party. But sometimes it’s worth pausing to examine the anatomy of a particularly egregious fabrication, to understand the broader “alternative fact” ecosystem that misinforms tens of millions of Americans.

Let’s consider the lie, endlessly repeated by Republicans and the Fox News-led echo chamber, that new legislation enacted by Democrats funds the hiring of “87,000 armed IRS agents.” Like the “death panel” fabrication during the Obamacare debate, this is a whole-cloth invention designed to stoke paranoia.

Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.), head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, sent an open letter last week warning Americans not to work for the IRS. He falsely claimed that the Democrats’ climate, energy and tax bill would add “roughly 87,000 agents” at the IRS, creating “an IRS super-police force”:

“The IRS made it very clear that one of the ‘major duties’ of these new positions is to ‘be willing to use deadly force.’ … The IRS is making it very clear that you not only need to be ready to audit and investigate your fellow hardworking Americans, your neighbors and friends, you need to be ready and, to use the IRS’s words, willing, to kill them.”

Catherine Rampell: Why does the IRS need $80 billion? Just look at its cafeteria.

Where to begin?

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The IRS certainly isn’t adding 87,000 armed agents. It isn’t even adding 87,000 agents. In fact, it’s not even adding 87,000 employees.

When you figure in attrition (current funding doesn’t let the IRS fill all vacancies), Treasury officials tell me, the expected increase in personnel would be more like 40,000, over the course of a decade — which would merely restore IRS staffing to around the 117,000 it had in 1990.

Only about 6,500 of the new hires would be “agents.” The rest would be customer-service representatives, data specialists and the like.

And fewer than 1 percent of the new hires would be armed. (The IRS job posting Scott cited, which predated the new law, was specifically for such law-enforcement personnel.) Such officers, who go after drug rings and Russian oligarchs, have been part of the IRS for more than a century.

As for the IRS coming after “hardworking Americans,” Treasury says the new law will result in a “lower likelihood of audit” for ordinary taxpayers, because technology upgrades will enable the IRS to target the actual tax cheats — the super-rich — for more audits. The wealthiest 1 percent defraud the government, and fellow taxpayers, of more than $160 billion a year.

So here we have a Republican Party leadership figure generating false hysteria about armed government agents, hysteria that has increased threats against the people who collect the funds for the U.S. military, among everything else. And he’s dishonestly fomenting antigovernment fury in the service of protecting filthy-rich tax cheats. (Scott’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

Hugh Hewitt: Democrats paint a target on their backs with IRS cash infusion

It isn’t just Scott.

Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), fantasizing about an “army of 87,000 IRS agents,” proclaimed that “we WILL NOT FUND these 87k armed new IRS agents who will target the American people.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa) mused on Fox News about “a strike force that goes in with AK-15s [sic] already loaded ready to shoot some small-business person.”

House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) warned that “Democrats’ new army of 87,000 IRS agents will be coming for you.”

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel saw an “IRS ‘SWAT team’ ” invading “your kids’ lemonade stand.”

Fox News’s Brian Kilmeade imagined that IRS agents would “hunt down and kill middle class taxpayers that don’t pay enough.”

Rep. Thomas Massie (Ky.) envisioned “87,000 new agents, AR-15s and 5 million rounds of ammunition.”

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) claimed “87,000 new IRS agents.” Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia alleged “87,000 armed IRS agents.” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis called it a “middle finger to the American public.”

The media startup Grid found that Republican members of Congress tweeted the “87,000 agents” falsehood hundreds of times, while Fox News has repeated it more than 90 times this month, according to the Stanford Cable TV News Analyzer — all unmoved by fact checks repeatedly debunking the nonsense.

Grid traced the 87,000-agents lie to Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, which in May 2021 took a Treasury Department proposal to add 86,852 positions at the IRS by 2031 (again, a gross figure that didn’t account for attrition) and wrongly concluded: “Biden Plans to Hire 87,000 New IRS Agents.” Sen. Joni Ernst (Iowa) repeated the misrepresentation, and Republicans were off to the races.

Instead, they could have told the truth: that the administration plans to add a few thousand IRS agents over 10 years, and a few hundred armed officers, to go after super-rich tax cheats. But the lie is so much scarier.