WASHINGTON — It has been called President Biden’s “shadow army,” described as a strike force to shake down small businesses with assault rifles and likened to a militia of auditors on search-and-destroy missions.
A decades-long Republican antipathy toward the Internal Revenue Service has reached a new level of enmity with the passage of a Democratic-backed bill that gives the agency $80 billion to beef up its ability to go after tax cheats. The legislation, which Mr. Biden signed into law this week, will allow the beleaguered agency to hire more than 80,000 employees, upgrade outdated technology systems and improve its ability to respond to taxpayers.
The agency’s staff is the same size today as it was in 1970, when it processed far fewer individual tax returns. Its enforcement staff has fallen more than 30 percent since 2010, and audits of millionaires have declined more than 70 percent. As of late June, millions of taxpayers were still waiting for the agency to process their 2021 tax returns.
But Republicans, who have long accused the I.R.S. of unfairly targeting conservatives, have seized on the law to fan unfounded conspiracy theories about the threat that mom-and-pop shops and middle-class Americans will face from an emboldened tax collector.
The scale and speed at which rumors about the agency have spread portend the political and logistical challenges that the Biden administration will confront as it embarks on the biggest overhaul of the I.R.S. since its inception. From Twitter and TikTok to newsletters and cable news, Republicans have embraced the notion that a bigger I.R.S. is poised to be weaponized against them, often distorting facts to make their points.
“This has become the lightning rod issue that’s really aggravated and activated conservative activists around the country,” said Stephen Moore, a conservative economist affiliated with FreedomWorks, a right-leaning organization that promotes small government. “I think it’s a total outrage.”
Mr. Moore, whose personal fight with the I.R.S. surfaced in 2019, has been leading a group of conservative activists in an attempt to “kill the bill” for nearly a year. Now that it has passed, Republicans have amped up their efforts to demonize the I.R.S., including misconstruing how big it will grow and what new employees will be doing.
“Stop Biden’s shadow army of 87,000 I.R.S. agents,” Senator Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican, blared on Twitter last week with an ominous ad recalling the agency’s targeting of Tea Party groups set against the sound of soldiers marching.
Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, a Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, warned Fox News viewers last week that the new I.R.S. agents, a small percentage of whom are allowed to carry firearms, might be coming with loaded “AK-15s” and “ready to shoot some small business person in Iowa.”
“I think they’re going after middle-class and small business people,” Mr. Grassley said. “With 87,000 additional employees, you can imagine what that harassment is going to be to middle-class Americans and our small business people.”
The I.R.S. is beefing up its staff to keep pace with the growth in taxpayers and to replace departing employees. The Biden administration expects that about 50,000 I.R.S. employees will retire within the next decade and that the agency will hire 87,000 new employees, bringing the overall size of the agency to around 120,000. The number of enforcement agents is expected to double to about 13,000 from 6,500 over the next decade.
And despite claims on social media that the I.R.S. hires will be heavily armed, a Treasury official said that just 1 percent of the new employees would be agents working in jobs that require carrying guns.
Still, the I.R.S. recently altered a job posting for criminal investigators amid the backlash, deleting that one of the role’s major duties was to “be willing to use deadly force, if necessary.” The amended ad now lists “Be legally allowed to carry a firearm” as a key requirement.
“The wording change on one web page followed continued misstatements and inaccuracies about I.R.S. employees carrying weapons,” said Khaalid Walls, an I.R.S. spokesman.
Republicans have been eager to fan fears about a scaled up I.R.S. ahead of midterm elections, which will determine which political party controls Congress.
Representative Kevin Brady of Texas, the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, said this week that families making less than $75,000 would face 710,000 additional audits, suggesting that the Biden administration had lied about its pledge to not increase audit rates of taxpayers who make less than $400,000. Mr. Brady also suggested that the I.R.S. would have to target middle-income families to generate the kind of tax revenue that it has assumed the new law will generate.
“Middle-class families ought to be frightened,” he said on Fox News.
The 87,000 hires were described by users on social media platforms like Truth Social, the social media network started by former President Donald J. Trump, as “thugs” and “terrorists” and likened repeatedly to the Gestapo, the K.G.B. and even soldiers for the Roman Empire. Along with Mr. Cruz, the conservative commentator Dan Bongino and congressmen from Arizona, Texas and Louisiana took to calling the I.R.S. an “army.”
Conservative personalities with hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter questioned why the I.R.S. suddenly needed “a massive stockpile of guns and ammo” (the agency’s spending on ammunition this year is actually in line with its many years of purchases, according to fact checkers) and accused Democrats of “weaponizing” the agency with agents “trained to kill Americans.”
On TikTok, users theorized that the I.R.S., armed to the teeth, was coming to seize their guns, and threatened to retaliate.
Kari Lake, the Trump-backed election conspiracist running to be governor of Arizona, wrote on Truth Social on Aug. 9 that “not a single one of us is safe.” She suggested, as did other high-profile users, that it was no coincidence that “they hired 87,000 IRS agents the day before” the F.B.I. search of Mar-a-Lago, even though the bill enabling the hiring had not yet been signed into law.
Right-wing outrage over the search of the property dovetailed with the charged language about war and dictatorship that has been circulating for weeks on platforms like Truth Social and helped amplify the I.R.S. backlash, said John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.
“It was a piece of disinformation that was floating around and salient at the time that involved government overreach,” he said.
Mentions of the I.R.S. and its hiring plans, already elevated after Mr. Biden discussed the Inflation Reduction Act in late July, surged 254 percent after the Mar-a-Lago search compared to the week before, according to data from Zignal Labs. Chatter around “armed I.R.S.” and “I.R.S. firearms” on social media, online forums, broadcast channels and traditional media increased 1,044 percent and 532 percent after the search.
The I.R.S. has acted inappropriately in the past, including unfairly targeting conservative groups that applied for tax-exempt status during the Obama administration. In 2013, the agency acknowledged that it had been singling out terms such as “Tea Party” and “patriot” as a shortcut for deciding if organizations were engaging in social welfare, which would qualify them for tax-exempt status, or if they might be political organizations. Former President Barack Obama called the agency’s actions “inexcusable” and ultimately demanded the resignation of the acting I.R.S. commissioner. A 2017 report from the Treasury inspector general found that progressive groups had also been improperly scrutinized.
Still, for all the ads and rhetoric, it is not clear whether the message is resonating ahead of the midterms.
A poll conducted by the market research firm YouGov with The Economist magazine this week found that around half of Americans supported the bill that included the I.R.S. funding when they were given a brief overview of what it contained. Around one-third of the respondents opposed it.
A separate survey from Morning Consult and Politico found that most voters are not worried about being audited by a beefed-up I.R.S. because they think that high-income Americans will bear the brunt of the increase in audits.
The Biden administration has been trying to debunk disinformation and tamp down fears. It insists that the revamped I.R.S. will be focused on better customer service and that honest taxpayers will have less to fear because audits will be better targeted at those who are evading taxes.
In a memo this week to the I.R.S. commissioner, Charles P. Rettig, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen mapped out her top priorities for the agency and reiterated that it must focus on rich tax dodgers and cracking down on corporate tax evasion.
“These investments will not result in households earning $400,000 per year or less or small businesses seeing an increase in the chances that they are audited relative to historical levels,” Ms. Yellen wrote.
John Koskinen, who served as I.R.S. commissioner in the Obama and Trump administrations, said that he thought the attacks on the agency by Republican lawmakers were irresponsible and that he worried that they could lead to violence against members of the agency. He suggested that the only taxpayers who would end up having to pay more were those who were not paying their taxes, and said that agents do not wield their weapons without good reason.
“The idea that the I.R.S. is going to show up and audit all sorts of people for the fun of it are either ignoring reality or just don’t know how the I.R.S. operates,” Mr. Koskinen said. “Honest taxpayers, who are the vast majority, aren’t going to be bothered at all.”
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