Sen. Ted Cruz says he wants to get rid of the Internal Revenue Service. This is a phenomenally bad idea, one so obviously wrongheaded it’s hard to believe he really means it.
But one of the biggest, and silliest, applause lines was this: “Imagine abolishing the IRS.”
This is not the first time Cruz has proposed this. He pitched it on Facebook two years ago and in multiple interviews since, even calling it the "single most important tax reform" and priority "No. 2" (after repealing Obamacare) in recent talks. The fact that he might make ending the IRS a centerpiece of a presidential campaign, though, is singularly scary, particularly given Republicans' demonstrated appetite for cutting the agency's funding to the bone and beyond.
It's not hard to understand why many Americans would celebrate the thought of ridding the country of the much-despised Internal Revenue Service. Even before the brouhaha over auditing conservative groups, and Lois Lerner's magically disappearing-reappearing e-mails, the IRS had among the lowest favorability ratings of all federal outfits. So yeah, why keep around an agency that everyone hates, especially when it keeps embroiling itself in embarrassing scandals?
Well, sorry to say it, but someone has to collect the money that keeps our government up and running, funding everything from Medicare to the military. The IRS is a cash-flow-positive agency, collecting an estimated $255 for every $1 appropriated to it, and dumping it would vastly widen existing government deficits. This is something fiscal conservatives, Cruz included, presumably already know. Yet the view that the IRS's budget should be minimized, and perhaps zeroed out entirely, is peculiarly popular on the right.
One reason Americans have long hated the IRS, needless to say, is that paying taxes is painful. Not just because doing so means handing over money to the government, but because it's so darn complicated. The IRS itself has estimated that it takes about 15 hours to prepare a Form 1040. As Cruz likes to point out, we "have more words in the IRS code than there are in the Bible." And it's getting only more complicated; there have been approximately 4,100 changes to the tax code since 2004, an average of more than one a day.
But this is not the IRS's fault. This is Congress's fault, for it is Congress that writes the Internal Revenue Code and clutters it with myriad carve-outs, loopholes, preferences, deductions and complicated categories for what counts as income and what doesn't, and under what circumstances. The IRS is tasked with implementing, interpreting and enforcing these laws — and moreover has itself advocated for simplifying the tax code, as greater simplicity would make its agents' jobs much easier, too.
Cruz has so far been unable to articulate why getting rid of our tax collection agency is a useful strategy for simplifying the tax code. To elaborate on an analogy I’ve used before, his proposal is a bit like a supermarket deciding that its couponing system is too complicated, so it should get rid of its cashiers. The cashiers don’t set pricing strategy; they just check to make sure people are paying the right amount.
To be fair, whenever speaking about his desire to ax the IRS, Cruz has typically also pushed for a simpler, "postcard"-size tax return in the same breath, usually in the form of a flat tax. Simplifying the tax code — by say, eliminating most deductions and other tax expenditures — is absolutely a worthy goal, though a flat tax by itself would do nothing to reduce the complexity of the filing process. The hard part of calculating your tax obligation is not multiplying your income by the relevant marginal tax rates, which you can do with a handy IRS table; for many people, it's figuring out how to measure income, and legitimate offsetting costs, in the first place.
If Cruz’s beef with the IRS is instead about whether it has misused its power in the way it enforces congressionally set tax law — an allegation he’s also made repeatedly — more oversight is the solution, not getting rid of the country’s key tax-collection agency altogether. Otherwise, he’ll have a hard time collecting his Senate salary, let alone a presidential one.
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