President Joe Biden called for an international aid package last week that would provide billions of dollars in support to Israel and Ukraine. This week, House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., proposed a counteroffer, narrowing the aid to $14 billion to Israel alone. And he threw in a condition ostensibly meant to satisfy Republicans’ alleged concern about the national debt: The bill would be financed by cutting the same amount of money from the IRS budget.
Johnson has blessed us with one of those moments that makes Republicans’ deviousness over “concerns about the national debt” crystal clear to the public. Robbing the IRS of money needed to make it more efficient will not help reduce the debt, it’ll increase it. What the move reveals is that Johnson is desperate to exploit the hot-button issue of Israel to shoehorn in a favor for the GOP’s high-income and corporate donors.
Johnson is trying to notch a putative win with the IRS cuts — and in the process is telling the world what the GOP really cares about.
Johnson’s approach to his first major legislative maneuver as the new leader of an unruly caucus is minimalistic. In a bid to avoid defections over aid to Ukraine, which a number of right-wing nationalist House Republicans oppose, he has focused on support for Israel — an initiative with widespread support in both parties. (Although in the process, he could lose Democrats and Republicans in the upper chamber who consider Ukraine aid vital.) But because his caucus approaches every legislative opportunity like a hostage negotiation, Johnson is trying to notch a putative win with the IRS cuts — and in the process is telling the world what the GOP really cares about.
According to The Washington Post, the proposed cuts to the IRS would cut back the agency’s expansion under the Inflation Reduction Act and would target “increased enforcement and a new online portal to allow taxpayers to file their taxes for free directly with the government.” There are two clear beneficiaries of those cuts: rich tax cheats, and corporations that make money off the IRS’ arcane filing system.
Republicans have tried to portray Biden’s attempts to reform the IRS with increased enforcement (among other things) as an attempt to soak and surveil ordinary Americans. But increased tax enforcement is increasing audits of people making more than $400,000 a year, and is generating greater scrutiny of exceptionally high-income people whose finances are more complicated, and who can afford to hire help to find loopholes in the tax code. Meanwhile, axing funding for the new portal for free filing increases the likelihood that Americans will continue to have to pay to use services like TurboTax to file their taxes.
Fewer resources for enforcement means that the IRS will lose out on money that’s owed to the government. It’s the last place a person sincerely concerned about the debt would turn for cuts. “Paying for new spending by defunding tax enforcement is worse than not paying for it at all. Instead of costing $14 billion, the House bill will add upward of $30 billion to the debt. Instead of avoiding new borrowing, this plan doubles down on it,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “Funding the IRS to reduce the tax gap has a long history of bipartisan support and has been proposed by every President from Reagan through Biden. It is one of the few ways to raise revenue without raising taxes.” The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the cuts would add $12.5 billion to the deficit in the next decade.
There’s little chance these numbers (or basic logic) will deter Johnson, since reducing debt is simply a shoddy disguise for an effort to advance a plutocratic agenda. The bigger issue for him is that the bill is already receiving criticism from both parties in the Senate. Among other things, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wants Ukraine in the bill, and Democrats have said the IRS cuts are unacceptable. Since Republicans were able to get Democrats to agree to $20 billion in IRS cuts as part of the debt ceiling deal earlier this year, they’re banking on being able to prevail on that front again by attaching more cuts to top-tier foreign policy goals. When asked to react to the CBO’s estimates, Johnson told reporters, “Only in Washington when you cut spending, do they call it an increase in the deficit.” Johnson surely knows that you can’t spend money that hasn’t been collected.