Since news broke on Monday that the FBI searched former President Donald Trump’s South Florida home, Republican members of Congress and right-wing media figures have launched a new line of attack against Democrats: that the Internal Revenue Service intends to use nearly $80 billion in new funding to pursue similar intrusions on average Americans. Trump’s allies claim that these funds will be used to hire 87,000 IRS agents.
“Do you make $75,000 or less?” tweetedKevin McCarthy, House Minority Leader. “Democrats’ new army of 87,000 IRS agents will be coming for you—with 710,000 new audits for Americans who earn less than $75k.” Richard Grenell, Trump’s former Acting Director of National Intelligence, wrote on the social media platform: “The FBI raids Trump’s house and the Democrats vote to add 87,000 new IRS agents to go after Americans. Wake up, America.”
Other high-profile conservatives have insinuated that the Biden administration intends to direct those additional auditors to dig up dirt on the President’s political opponents. “After todays raid on Mar A Lago what do you think the left plans to use those 87,000 new IRS agents for?” tweeted Sen. Marco Rubio.
There’s only one problem. It’s not true.
The Inflation Reduction Act, a landmark climate, health care and tax package that passed the Senate on Sunday and is expected to head to Biden’s desk after the House approves it on Friday, includes roughly $78 billion for the IRS to be phased in over 10 years. According to a May 2021 Treasury Department report, such an investment could allow the IRS to hire approximately 87,000 workers by 2031. But most of those hires would not be Internal Revenue agents, and wouldn’t be new positions.
Officials from the Treasury Department stated that funds will cover various positions such as IT support staff, tax services support staff, and auditors with experience who would be charged with fighting high-income taxpayers and corporate tax evaders.
“It is wholly inaccurate to describe any of these resources as being about increasing audit scrutiny of the middle class or small businesses,” Natasha Sarin, a counselor for tax policy and implementation at the Treasury Department, tells TIME.
At the same time, more than half of the agency’s current employees are eligible for retirement and are expected to leave the agency within the next five years. “There’s a big wave of attrition that’s coming and a lot of these resources are just about filling those positions,” says Sarin, an economist who has studied tax avoidance extensively and who was tapped by the Biden administration to beef up the IRS’s auditing power.
In all, the IRS might net roughly 20,000 to 30,000 more employees from the new funding, enough to restore the tax-collecting agency’s staff to where it was roughly a decade ago.
Nearly 78,000 IRS employees are currently employed. According to John Koskinen, who served as IRS commissioner from 2013 to 2017, that’s down from around 100,000 when he first started. Four years later, when he decided to resign, it was evident that the GOP was trying to weaken the agency.
“Nobody loves tax collectors,” Koskinen tells TIME.
It’s an effort that goes back to 2010, when Republicans took back control of the House of Representatives and immediately instituted a series of crippling cuts on the IRS. The overall IRS funding has plummeted by more than 20% and enforcement funding by 31% since then. That’s made it easier for high-net-worth tax cheats and major corporations to avoid federal taxes to the tune of billions of dollars.
“The largest corporations in the United States with over $20 billion of assets have had their rate of audits go from nearly 100% to 50%,” says Janet Holtzblattt, a senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. “Among wealthy individuals who had a positive income of a million dollars or more, the audit rate fell from 8.4% in 2010 to 2.4% in 2019.”
The lack of employees has only made it difficult for Americans to get help from the IRS. It is now overwhelmed by requests that exceed the capabilities of its staff. “I used to say there’s no Democratic or Republican way to run the IRS,” Koskinen says. “The people who are significantly disadvantaged are the average taxpayers who have a simple question and can’t get through. Those are Republicans as well as independents and Democrats.” As of last month, the IRS backlog included 10.2 million unprocessed individual returns.
The Inflation Reduction Bill will provide funding for tech modernization. To process individual tax returns, the IRS uses COBOL technology, which dates back to 1960. The government claims that it has been difficult to locate workers who can code in the outdated system.
The increased funding for the IRS is a key part of Democrats’ plan to pay for the Inflation Reduction Act. The Congressional Budget Office projects that the IRS will generate $204 billion more revenue over the next ten years by pursuing tax fraudsters harder and increasing compliance.
Yet while the IRS may be in desperate need of more funding, it’s not exactly most Americans’ favorite government institution. It’s not something that anyone likes to pay a huge check to Uncle Sam. This is why Republicans will continue to press this point for months. They could even point to the possibility of 87,000 IRS agents never coming to fruition.
“I think a lot of people are going to be upset by this across the country and across the political spectrum,” Hogan Gidley, Trump’s former White House deputy press secretary, tells TIME, when asked about IRS funding. He falsely described the Biden administration’s plan as hiring “85,000 IRS agents to come after mom-and-pop businesses.”
But if Gidley’s right, Americans will only be angry because of what Republicans are telling them about the IRS—not what’s actually happening there.
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