The National  Memo Logo

Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

In a letter on Friday , a group of prominent senators — including Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), 2020 presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) as well as Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) — urged IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig to increase the agency’s focus on large tax and financial crimes.

As ProPublica has documented with a series of articles, the IRS is a shadow of its former self, the result of a near-decadelong campaign by Republicans in Congress to starve the agency of funds. The agency’s enforcement staff has dropped by more than a third. That has been a boon to the rich and to tax cheats in particular, who have benefited from a collapse in audits, collections and criminal tax prosecutions.

As we reported, and as the senators noted in their letter, the story has been different for the poor, as the IRS has devoted a disproportionate number of its audits to taxpayers who receive the earned income tax credit, one of the government’s largest antipoverty programs.

The senators acknowledged that the budget cuts have badly weakened the agency, but they argued that ProPublica’s stories, together with government watchdog reports, show the IRS could use its limited resources more effectively.

The widening circle of investigations surrounding President Donald Trump has highlighted the weakness of tax enforcement, as we explained last October. Paul Manafort hid income overseas for years, and Michael Cohen dodged taxes through the simplest means imaginable (by lying to his accountant and the IRS) without consequence. It was only after the Robert Mueller’s team and other federal prosecutors began scrutinizing Trump’s circle that their crimes were discovered. The senators say that such examples of “exposure of criminal activity only resulting from investigations pursued for other matters” prove that the IRS can do more. “We urge you to strengthen enforcement efforts at the IRS, including focusing on tax code violations and financial crimes that may be linked to money laundering,” they wrote.

The IRS will not get a budget increase anytime soon. After a 34-day government shutdown, Congress and Trump struck a deal to fund the government for the next seven months. For the IRS, the deal included a cut from last year’s budget. In real terms, the enforcement portion of the agency’s budget is down by 23 percent since 2010.

Will things change next year? That’s in part up to Rettig. Last year, Republican congressional staffers told us that lawmakers might respond favorably if Rettig asked for more funds. So far, Rettig has not made any clear statements about whether he believes the IRS needs more money to do its job.

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

IMAGE: IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig (right) with Senate Finance Committee chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT).

Advertising

Start your day with National Memo Newsletter

Know first.

The opinions that matter. Delivered to your inbox every morning

Eric Holder

The failure of major federal voting rights legislation in the Senate has left civil rights advocates saying they are determined to keep fighting—including by suing in battleground states. But the little bipartisan consensus that exists on election reform would, at best, lead to much narrower legislation that is unlikely to address state-level GOP efforts now targeting Democratic blocs.

“This is the loss of a battle, but it is not necessarily the loss of a war, and this war will go on,” Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general and Democrat, told MSNBC, saying that he and the Democratic Party will be suing in states where state constitutions protect voting rights. “This fight for voting rights and voter protection and for our democracy will continue.”

“The stakes are too important to give up now,” said Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which for years has operated an Election Day hotline to help people vote. “Our country cannot claim to be free while allowing states to legislate away that freedom at will.”

In recent weeks, as it became clear that the Senate was not going to change its rules to allow the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to pass with a simple majority, there have been efforts by some lawmakers, election policy experts, and civil rights advocates to identify what election reforms could pass the Senate.

“There are several areas… where I think there could be bipartisan consensus,” said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, in a briefing on January 20. “These areas are all around those guardrails of democracy. They are all about ensuring that however the voters speak that their voice is heard… and cannot be subverted by anyone in the post-election process.”

Becker cited updating the 1887 Electoral Count Act, which addressed the process where state-based slates of presidential electors are accepted by Congress. (In recent weeks, new evidence has surfaced showing that Donald Trump’s supporters tried to present Congress with forged certificates as part of an effort to disrupt ratifying the results on January 6, 2021.) Updating that law could also include clarifying which state officials have final authority in elections and setting out clear timetables for challenging election results in federal court after Election Day.

Five centrist Washington-based think tanks issued a report on January 20, Prioritizing Achievable Federal Election Reform, which suggested federal legislation could codify practices now used by nearly three-quarters of the states. Those include requiring voters to present ID, offering at least a week of early voting, allowing all voters to request a mailed-out ballot, and allowing states to start processing returned absentee ballots a week before Election Day.

But the report, which heavily drew on a task force of 29 state and local election officials from 20 states convened by Washington’s Bipartisan Policy Center, was notable in what it did not include, such as restoring the major enforcement section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was removed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. It did not mention the Electoral Count Act nor growing threats to election officials from Trump supporters.

“This won’t satisfy all supporters of the Freedom to Vote Act, but this is a plausible & serious package of reforms to make elections more accessible and secure that could attract bipartisan support,” tweeted Charles Stewart III, a political scientist and director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. “A good starting point.”

The reason the centrist recommendations won’t satisfy civil rights advocates is that many of the most troubling developments since the 2020 election would likely remain.

Targeting Battleground States

Keep reading... Show less

Former president Donald Trump

By Rami Ayyub and Alexandra Ulmer

(Reuters) -The prosecutor for Georgia's biggest county on Thursday requested a special grand jury with subpoena power to aid her investigation into then-President Donald Trump's efforts to influence the U.S. state's 2020 election results.

Keep reading... Show less
x
{{ post.roar_specific_data.api_data.analytics }}