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Opinion Republicans have found the 2022 version of ‘death panels’

The IRS facility in New Carrollton Md. (Al Drago/Bloomberg)

While Democrats have spent the bulk of their campaign ad dollars warning voters about the threat their opponents pose to abortion rights, Republicans have focused on inflation and crime. But now it looks like the GOP has expanded its campaign agenda. Punchbowl News reports on some startling new ad expenditures:

Since Aug. 1, Republican candidates and groups have spent more than $12 million on roughly 24,000 airings of ads warning of a massive influx of IRS agents.

In other words, Republicans have found their “death panels.” Or at least, they think they have.

While campaigns regularly take some minor detail of a bill their opponent voted for and blow it up to appear as appalling as possible, the “death panel” lie is a specific variant of that tactic that provides a template for Republicans to follow.

During debates over the Affordable Care Act in 2009 and 2010, Republicans took a provision of the bill allowing Medicare to reimburse doctors for visits that discussed patients’ end-of-life choices and transformed it into a series of fantastical falsehoods. It culminated in Sarah Palin’s breathless warning that the bill would create a future “in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome” will face “Obama’s ‘death panel’ ” where “bureaucrats” decide “whether they are worthy of health care.”

The “death panel” lie found quick purchase among a party base that had already demonstrated eagerness to accept the idea that Barack Obama had falsified his birth records as part of a plot to destroy America. Those people are still around, “doing their own research” about satanic cannibal conspiracies and vaccines with microchips in them. And IRS agents.

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The actual IRS story is that after years of funding cuts by Republicans, the agency was left understaffed, saddled with outdated equipment and completely outgunned by wealthy tax cheats who can afford armies of accountants to enable them to avoid paying what they owe.

So as part of the Inflation Reduction Act, Democrats realized a long-held goal: They gave the IRS a large infusion of funding to update its systems, provide better customer service to taxpayers and go after the rich tax-avoiders who have sucked the country dry. By some estimates, as much as $1 trillion in taxes goes uncollected every year.

Since the agency estimates it will lose 52,000 employees over the coming years to attrition, the bill provided for them to make 87,000 new hires over the next decade.

Here’s where this gets death paneled. Republicans took those 87,000 employees — which will include phone-answerers, data entry clerks, analysts, IT personnel — and declared them all “agents,” or in some tellings, “armed agents,” even though only a tiny number will fit that description.

Brutal, heartless G-men busting down your door, kicking your dog and rifling through your sock drawer! As Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) warned, “Are they going to have a strike force that goes in with AK-15s already loaded ready to shoot some small business person in Iowa?”

That same Grassley told voters in 2009 that they “have every right to fear” the ACA because we “should not have a government run plan to decide when to pull the plug on grandma.”

The connection between these two cases isn’t just that they both feature deceit. It’s that they take something government does — indeed, something we should all want government to do — and turn it into something horrific and dangerous to you and your family, even potentially deadly. Government isn’t just providing health insurance or enforcing tax laws; it’s sentencing the frail and sick to premature death and gunning down small-business owners.

It’s almost as if Republicans don’t believe their anti-government philosophy can succeed on its own terms, so it has to be adorned with scary masks and Halloween makeup. They could argue that government health insurance would produce inefficiencies, but instead they say bureaucrats are coming to kill your beloved grandmother. They could say that it’s better for our tax collection agency to have fewer resources so it won’t trouble too many taxpayers, but instead they say an army of 87,000 jackbooted IRS agents is coming for you.

That washes clean their own actions as well. So when they defund the IRS, they aren’t helping the wealthy avoid paying their fair share, they’re keeping regular folks safe from the tax Gestapo. Or as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) recently promised, “On our very first bill, we’re going to repeal 87,000 IRS agents.”

They’ll certainly try; congressional Republicans believe few things with more conviction than the idea that wealthy people paying taxes is a moral outrage. But whenever they come up with a new “death panel,” remember that the whole point is to make you terrified of government. And because the things government is actually doing aren’t scary enough, they have to spin out horror stories that are nothing but fiction.

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