IRS phobia: The Obamacare connection

    Gee, what a surprise! Republicans are targeting Obamacare again, not only by staging yet another House repeal vote (the 37th, destined to fail like the other 36), but by invoking the dark specter of a runaway IRS. As we shall see shortly, the blatant lying has already begun.

    For health reform foes, the current IRS flap could not have surfaced at a better time — because the IRS has been tasked by law to play a big role in the program. Starting next year, when America finally joins the rest of the western world in providing a safety net for the uninsured, the IRS will give subsidies to those who need help buying insurance; the lower the income, the higher the aid. The IRS will also add a line to its tax-filing form, asking Americans to list their source of health coverage; those who fail to list anything will face a penalty. Indeed, the IRS is already involved in Obamacare’s early rollout; it has begun giving tax credits to small businesses, a carrot aimed at goading them to provide coverage for their employes.

    But the scandal du jour — apparently, four employes in the Cincinnati office targeted small-fry conservative groups — is juicy grist for Republican rhetoricians. The opportunistic talking point — misleading and demagogic though it may be — virtually writes itself. Newt Gingrich (natch) did a version of it yesterday: “Why would you trust the bureaucracy with your health if you can’t trust the bureaucracy with your politics?”

    Dean Heller, a Republican senator from Nevada, is already floating a bill that would block the IRS from working on health reform. Obama, in his 2014 budget, has requested $440 million for the IRS’ implementation efforts; Heller wants to suspend that money, because of what he calls “recent events.” His colleague Charles Grassley was more specific: “What’s happened [in the scandal] heightens fears about how the IRS will…wield its power when it enforces Obamacare starting next year.”

    Grading on curve, those are the more sane voices; needless to say, the IRS scandal has emboldened the Crazy. For instance, Michelle Bachmann suggested in an interview, on the far-right World Net Daily website, that the IRS might conspire to “deny” or “delay” health care to conservative citizens: “It is a reasonable question to ask, should Americans fear [that] their government may try to harm them if they are conservative?” (It’s news to me that conservatives want to partake in Obamacare.)

    Then we have the usual suspects, like Rush Limbaugh and Breitbart News (it should be “News”). Yesterday, a Breitbarter typed this: “It is estimated that the IRS will need 15,000 new agents just to police American health care.” And yesterday, in a conversation with a caller, Limbaugh said this: “It’s 16,000 additional agents that they’re hiring!” — to which the credulous caller replied, “Now I’m even more scared.”

    Yup, the big lie of 2010 is back in circulation. It doesn’t take much to bestir the paranoids.

    Back then, Gingrich was one of the falsehood peddlers; as he said at the time: “Do you really want to have 16,000 more IRS agents as a brand-new health police?” But that number was a crock; it came from a House Republican report that was rightly denounced by nonpartisan fact-checkers as “guesswork and false assumptions, and compounded by outright misrepresentations.” The 16,000 figure “simply lacks any foundation in fact.”

    In reality, the IRS is slated to add only 2,000 people; and the vast majority will be desk jockeys, not agents. And in reality, the IRS doesn’t have the authority to decide on the basis of ideology who gets coverage and who doesn’t. (Limbaugh got it into his head that a “true Obama believer” at the IRS could decide “to demand your voting history.”) The boring, mundane truth is very different: The IRS’ role in Obamacare is tightly restricted by the reform law.

    As health policy expert Henry Aaron of the Brookings Institution told reporters the other day, “The law is written to give the IRS service functions, not policy functions. There are formulas built into the law regarding payments,” a reference to the dispensing of tax credits and subsidies. “The IRS will act as a service organization, following those formulas.”

    As for the GOP’s idea of blocking Obama’s request for an additional $440 million in IRS money, that threat is a paper tiger. In the scheme of things, that amount is chump change (to put it perspective, we spent roughly $2.5 billion in Iraq every week), and rest assured that Obama’s budget team can find the $440 million somewhere else. Obamacare already has a general implementation fund, with enough in it to cover the IRS’ role.

    If anything, the current IRS scandal may have an upside. Tighter oversight will help ensure that the agency administers Obamacare in accordance with its nonpartisan mission. No doubt Republicans would be disappointed with such a happy result, but the rest of us — particularly those most in need of coverage — would surely benefit.

    And as for the House GOP’s 37th rote vote to repeal Obamacare (red meat for the base, slated for today), three words in response: Knock yourselves out.


    The Obama administration’s release of the Benghazi emails reveals that … gasp! … the agencies engaged in a garden-variety Washington turf war, with nary a shread of evidence (much less a smoking gun) of White House political manipulation. No doubt the Republicans will now demand to see the long-form emails.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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