The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Suddenly, it’s the right that wants to defund law enforcement

Police for thee, but not for me

A police vehicle is seen outside former president Donald Trump’s residence in Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., on Aug. 8, 2022. (Giorgio Viera/AFP/Getty Images)

Following concerns about being unfairly targeted by unchecked members of law enforcement, a new movement has emerged calling for agencies to be stripped of power and funding. Rampant distrust and fears about abuse of power are fueling calls to push back, to limit authority and constrain personnel counts.

This isn’t the left’s “defund the police.” It’s the right’s “stop the FBI.” It’s the GOP’s explicit opposition to boosting staff at the IRS.

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Over the weekend, the Senate passed the Inflation Reduction Act, a concisely named bill that includes a range of new measures. Among them is increased funding for the Internal Revenue Service, to the tune of some $80 billion over the next decade. That funding includes plans to increase IRS staff by nearly 87,000 full-time employees over that same time period.

The administration’s argument for this move is that the agency has been depleted in recent years, making it less effective. Adding funding and staff will pay for itself in part, the argument goes, because the agency will be better able to identify cheating on taxes. In recent years, both the total number of IRS staff and the number focused on examination and collection have not grown significantly and are at or near levels seen 20 years ago, when there were 30 percent fewer filers.

The additional $80 billion in spending is projected to yield $124 billion in revenue through better enforcement. But, for obvious reasons, Democrats are eager to make clear that only higher-income Americans will see more frequent audits.

“[T]he additional resources will go toward enforcement against those with the highest incomes,” the administration’s explanation of the funding argues, “and audit rates will not rise relative to recent years for those earning less than $400,000 in actual income.”

The specter of tens of thousands more IRS agents, though, was hard for Republicans to resist. Sure, not all of those 87,000 additional employees would be tasked with poking around in tax returns, but some were — and who wants that!

So we got Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) intoning about “BIDEN’S SHADOW ARMY,” a crew that would “target regular, everyday Americans,” and GOP Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel warning that those taking part-time jobs to pay bills are “exactly the people the 87,000 new IRS agents will likely go after.” And so on.

It’s very useful to consider this rhetoric in the broader context of the recent debate over law enforcement. People like Cruz and McDaniel are presumably not worried about overreach by their local police departments. Importantly, they understand that this is not something their voters are terribly worried about. Complaints that municipal police might be treating some segments of the population differently than others — pulling them over disproportionately, searching them more — are not things Cruz’s and McDaniel’s bases lose sleep over.

But an audit? Sure. So the idea that the IRS is gaining clout is cause for concern, particularly because there had been an effective defund-the-tax-police movement for years that’s now being reversed. In 1999, there were 60 examination and collection agents for every 1,000 filers reporting incomes of $500,000 or more. Two decades later there were only 17.

This was the state of play until about 7 p.m. on Monday. I made those graphs expecting to write about the response to IRS funding in this context. Then, suddenly, I got a new example: FBI agents had searched former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla.

In short order, the bureau became a target of even more virulent opposition. Take this, from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.).

This is not irony. It is Greene extending her belief that the FBI’s targeting of Mar-a-Lago was an unacceptable overreach to a specific conclusion: The bureau is too powerful and should be constrained. She’s co-opting the verbiage of those who view local police departments with similar skepticism, but she is not being insincere in her demand.

As with the IRS, complaints about the FBI — and Greene was by no means alone in offering one — were rooted in assumptions about what the agencies were or would be doing. Republicans and conservative media very quickly leaped to criticize the bureau as overstepping boundaries in conducting its search, despite the dearth of information about what was being sought or what laws the government (and the judge who signed off on the search) believed were committed. Thanks in large part to years of dishonest representations from those same parties and Trump himself about the FBI targeting him unfairly, Republicans quickly framed the search as unacceptably partisan, as political strike by their opponents.

We should at no point grant law enforcement a reflexive benefit of the doubt that it is operating with complete directness and objectivity, certainly. Any use of governmental force — from arrests to searches to financial reviews — should be conducted with transparency and evenhandedness, something that demands our collective oversight and scrutiny.

But it is impossible not to notice how the response to the Mar-a-Lago search and the IRS expansion reveal the gulf in what sorts of oversight Americans fear. Black Americans in particular have drawn focus in recent years on how police departments apply force, including deadly force, prompting the political right to largely circle the wagons in defense of cops. When, however, the cops work for the IRS or target a popular Republican political figure — even one with a lengthy track record of blurring legal lines — that reflexive support evaporates. Instead, there’s default skepticism and concern about systemic problems. Which, for the original supporters of “defund the police” will seem familiar.

One refrain that emerged following the Mar-a-Lago search was that it demonstrated how far federal law enforcement was willing to go. “If they can target a president, they can target you,” the common line went. Setting aside the unique circumstances here — if the search was, as reported, targeting classified documents Trump kept at his home, that’s an uncommon situation — a fair response is: sure. Yes, if the feds or the police think that a law was broken, they might search my house, too. And sometimes those searches will be specious. Sometimes the police will engage in coverups to protect themselves. That can happen to you, indeed — but, at certain levels, it seems to happen to some people more than others.

If you demand accountability for members of law enforcement you fear but not for ones you don’t, you aren’t demanding accountability for law enforcement.