Fox News pundits warned its viewers that expanded funding for the Internal Revenue Service passed by Democrats last year would create a dystopian armed force that would be “at war” with Republicans. In reality, the funding enables the agency to hire workers to man its tax preparation hotline phones, dramatically reducing wait times this tax season – but House Speaker Kevin McCarthy still made pulling the funding a priority in the hostage demands he issued on Wednesday for raising the debt ceiling.
Fox retains its audience by keeping them alternately terrified and enraged about the state of U.S. politics. Its propagandists regularly catastrophize over Democratic politicians and the purported impact of their policies, real or imagined. But even by those standards, Fox’s commentary last year about the roughly $80 billion in funding for the IRS that was included in the Inflation Reduction Act was uniquely deranged and irresponsible.
Fox’s star host Tucker Carlson, for example, posited in August that Democrats were “hiring another 87,000 armed IRS agents” with the funds “just to make sure that you obey,” a demagogic mash-up of a pair of right-wing falsehoods. Carlson depicted the move as part of President Joe Biden’s “war on his own population” which targets “Trump voters” with “acts of aggression and hostility.”
Carlson’s conspiracy theories were part of a Fox campaign of toxic rhetoric against the IRS, as I noted at the time:
Fox pundits have described the potential wave of IRS hiring as an “economic, financial militia against regular people” deployed by those who “want to control you”; a “new army” that will “hunt down and kill middle class taxpayers”; a “new Gestapo” Biden will use in an “abusive, corrupt manner”; “a Praetorian Guard that will be unleashed again” to “grab all the cash they can by any means necessary”; and “part of an orchestrated campaign to target Americans and have the federal government be at war with those Americans.”
Overheated commentary from right-wing pundits and politicians triggered concerns of potential violence against IRS employees. But the dire predictions of the Fox crew never materialized. In reality, the increased funding led to an 85% reduction in the time taxpayers waited to speak to a representative this tax season, The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday:
The agency answered 2.4 million more taxpayer phone calls with live assistance this year through April 7, compared with the same period last year. And wait times fell to four minutes, down from a sitcom-length 27 minutes a year ago.
“We made a quantum leap this year,” IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel said Monday, on the eve of tax day, citing the $80 billion funding Congress provided last year. One of the first moves to transform the tax agency was hiring thousands of customer-service representatives to answer the phones.
How much has customer service improved? The IRS says its representatives answered nearly nine out of 10 calls, compared with less than two out of 10 calls last year.
The IRS also revealed earlier this month a 150-page plan for using the rest of the funds, which includes additional improvements in customer service and technology as well as additional enforcement targeted at large corporations and taxpayers who make more than $400,000 annually.
Fox’s paranoid IRS conspiracy theories provide the GOP with cover for its bog-standard policy preferences. Republican politicians want to ensure that rich people are able to get away with cheating on their taxes and that everyone else goes through a filing process that is as excruciating as possible to reduce public support for higher taxes and tax enforcement.
After Republicans won control of the House, the first bill they passed repealed the IRS funding boost. That legislation was dead on arrival in the Senate, which Democrats retain, and would be vetoed by Biden. But the GOP hasn’t given up hope on helping tax cheats and hurting normal taxpayers – when McCarthy put forward his demands for what House Republicans required as their price for raising the debt ceiling and avoiding a global financial catastrophe, a sizable IRS funding cut was included.