Thursday, January 25, 2018

Congress and the Tax Collector

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
— A Saying

Here are two idioms that have no applicability to the United States Congress: “Once bitten, twice shy;” “The third time’s a charm.”

It was all brought to mind upon seeing the headline in the New York Times on January 10, 2018, a few short days before Congress decided it was easier to shut down the government than to legislate. The headline announced that the I.R.S. “paid $20 million to collect $6.7 million in Tax Debts.” At first blush the reader assumed this was a story that had somehow crept into the newspaper by mistake and escaped the attention of the articles editor. The reader who thought that could be forgiven for being surprised at seeing the story. That is because that story had appeared in the New York Times and other publications on two earlier occasions.

In 1996 Congress decided that the Internal Revenue Service could be assisted in collecting unpaid taxes by hiring Private Collection Agencies known as PCAs. Their task was to undertake collections from delinquent taxpayers. The program lasted one year before it was terminated. It was terminated because instead of making money for the government by collecting back taxes, it cost the government $17 million. In addition, it was learned that the PCAs had regularly violated the terms of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

Those interested in collecting past due debts might find themselves leery of giving such a failed effort a second chance. Proving that “once bitten, twice shy” does not apply to Congress, however, the program was re-introduced again in 2004 as part of the American Jobs Creation Act. According to projections at the time that Act was passed, and contrary to empirical evidence from less than 10 years earlier, its Congressional supporters said that the PCAs would collect $1.3 billion and receive commissions of $350 million. It was, so the Congress believed, a sure fire winner.

In 2008 the House Ways and Means Committee held hearings to determine how well the program was working. Here is what it learned. It learned that 85 percent of the people contacted by the PCAs did not owe any back taxes. It learned that, whereas it cost the IRS $.07 for every dollar it collected, it cost the PCAs $.24 to collect the same amount. The IRS had an 11 percent success rate whereas the PCAs had a 4 percent success rate. The PCAs did not collect the promised $1.3 billion. They collected $4.5 million. By most measures that would not be considered a success. Nonetheless, the program continued until it was ended in 2009 by President Obama, who looked at the statistics and came to the conclusion that the program was not working as advertised by its proponents in 2004. Ending the program infuriated Senator Chuck Grassley (R. IA) who had always been a strong supporter of the program and believed that notwithstanding its obvious failures, the fact that the collections were handled by the private sector rather than the public sector was reason enough to continue the program. (Senator Grassley also observed that 60 people in his home state of Iowa would lose their jobs as a result of termination of the program.) And that brings us to the present when we learn that “the third time’s a charm” has no applicability to congressional actions.

In December 2015, Congress enacted a law that required the IRS to use PSAs yet again, in order to collect a part of the $138 billion delinquent taxpayers owed the government. On September 26, 2016, the IRS announced that, following the Congressional mandate, it planned “to begin private collection of certain overdue federal tax debts [in 2016] and has selected four contractors.” The program was in effect during 2017. It was not only Congress that thought the idea of private debt collection was a great idea. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, (whose name suggests his ancestors came from the land of Oz) was asked about the program during his confirmation hearing and said: “it seems like a very obvious thing to do.” It may have been obvious. It was not successful. According to the I.R.S.’s taxpayer advocate, in 2017 the I.R.S. received $6.7 million in taxes collected by the PSAs whereas the PSAs received $20 million in commissions. In addition, in some cases, the PSAs received 25% commissions on collections that they had no role in obtaining. As of this writing, there is no suggestion that Congress intends to end this program. Instead, Congress has been cutting the I.R.S’s budget.

When John Koskinen ended his tenure as commissioner of the IRS in early November 2016, he was open in his criticism of how Congress was funding the IRS. Among other things, he observed that the agency has lost 20,000 full time staffers since 2010. It has lot one-third of its compliance officers. (They are the ones who make the recalcitrant tax payer pay and the ones whose tasks are now being be supplemented by the PSAs.) Things are not all bleak for the PSAs, however. If Congress continues to cut the IRS’s budget, as it seems certain to do, and if, as a result, the agency continues to lose compliance officers, its ability to collect delinquent taxes will get even worse than it now is, and if its budget is cut far enough, the PSAs will look good by comparison, thus justifying their continued employment. Go figure


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Funeral for Decency

Omissions are not accidents.

—Marianne Moore, Complete Poems, author’s note

The funeral has begun. The casket lies open on the altar of decency and the asterisk rests quietly within, while the officiant prepares to close the coffin and lower it into its grave. The officiant is Donald J. Trump. The asterisk has served us well and protected us from crudeness. Prior to its last gasp, it had been in a perilous state and its requiem had been sung. But hope sprang eternal, and it was hoped it might recover. It did not, and having been relieved of its suffering, will serve us no longer. Its final illness began many months ago when Donald J. Trump came onto the stage. It was he, with his grossness and contempt for civilized discourse, that caused the asterisk to begin its decline.

The asterisk had for years enjoyed its role of permitting those committing thoughts to writing, to make reference to words that might offend, by only hinting at their use rather than printing them in full. One of the early manifestations of the illness to which the asterisk was succumbing, appeared on October 8, 2016, on the front page of the New York Times. The lead article was entitled: “Tape Reveals Trump Boast About Groping Women.” In the second paragraph of that story, a story having nothing to do with dogs or cats, the words “bitch” and “pussy” appeared, and in the third paragraph, what was formerly referred to as “the F word,” appeared without the help of the asterisk, the paper apparently having concluded that it was no longer needed. The editor who made that decision was confirmed in his belief that the asterisk was no longer an essential part of the literary world when one week later, in columns by noted columnists, Maureen Dowd and Nicholas Kristof, each of them eschewed the asterisk when referring to the fact that the crudity who had become the president of the United States, had agreed with the interviewer, Michael Stern, that his daughter, Ivanka, was a “piece of ***.” Unlike this writer, the two columnists declined the assistance of the asterisk in their pieces.

During the same period that the asterisk’s illness manifested itself in the New York Times, its affliction was also apparent in the Washington Post. On October 10, 2016, there was a story in “The Fix” about comments made by a Clinton aide. In the headline, the asterisk was alive and well. The headline was: “Clinton aide to Donald Trump ‘go * * * * yourself.’” Unquestionably proud of itself and its prominence on the front page of the Washington Post, the asterisk had to be disappointed when in the context of the article it found itself pushed aside in favor of the offending letters that were permitted to complete the word, a word that the asterisk knew even a few months earlier would never have been given voice in a publication as important as The Washington Post. Be that as it may. The debasement of the English language by the White House Fool, is now complete.

In demonstrating his complete lack of qualification to represent the United States in any respect, the White House Fool used a word to describe nations he holds in contempt that, to the knowledge of this writer, had not appeared in the mainstream press or been heard or seen on major radio or television outlets. And it was interesting to see how the transmogrification of the English language and the death of the asterisk was assured during the two or three days following the revelation from Senator Richard Durban of what crudeness had been spoken by the White House Fool on January 11, 2018, when meeting with the Senators. When the report was first made public, at least one major network in describing the word used by the Fool, said it was not a word that journalistic niceties would permit to be uttered and simply hinted at it. The same approach was taken by various other commentators. Such niceties were soon cast aside. Within a matter of 48 hours or so, the asterisk, that had protected the sensibilities of the reader when the story was first reported in print, was discarded, and the offensive word appeared in full in all its glory surrounded for a few days by quotation marks that were apparently considered by the publisher to be a substitute for the deceased asterisk. In a recent column by Paul Krugman in the New York Times the quotation marks have gone the way of the asterisk. The word appears without even a suggestion that its advent into the main stream press is unusual or unwelcome. Like the printed press, radio and television now make no attempt to shield viewers and listeners from the offending word.

Those wanting a longer description of the travels of that word through the media since its advent a few short days ago, should go to a piece written by Sean O’Neil. In his column he traces the word’s treatment since it was introduced into polite society and provides an excellent description of how discretion and sensitivity have left our world. In their place, the White House Fool occupies a bigger and bigger part of it. Sad.


Thursday, January 11, 2018

Kobach Redux

To know is nothing at all; to imagine is everything.

—Anatole France, The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard

It’s not that he’s ever been far away. It’s just that whenever he returns, it causes the casual observer to marvel at how a great education could produce such a distorted intelligence and twisted mind. The good news is that soon he will leave the national stage in order to return to his home state and favor its voters with his peculiar views of government. A graduate of Harvard, Oxford, and Yale Law School, he is proof that, as one University President put it, some years back, when speaking of college graduates, “you can never be sure they are educated.” He is Kris Kobach.

Kris is remembered for a number of peculiar triumphs that occurred during the last two years. It was he, who while serving on the Republican Platform Committee of the Republican National Convention, successfully inserted language into the platform that addresses illegal immigration in the manner now demanded by the country’s Resident Fool who has found shelter in the White House. The language he successfully inserted was: “The border wall must cover the entirety of the southern border and must be sufficient to stop both vehicular and pedestrian traffic.” In furtherance of this project, eight sample walls have now been constructed in Texas, the prettiest of which is described as being a pale blue and white and resembles in some respects a split level home. The wall was not Kris’s only platform success. He inserted into that platform language pertaining to gay marriage and stating that the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion legalizing it was obviously incorrect.

Although Kris serves as Kansas’s Secretary of State, he has enjoyed serving as the vice-chair of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Election Integrity. Vice President Pence was the chair of that Committee, but Kris assumed the role of leader which was singularly appropriate since he is more in tune with perceived election fraud than almost anyone in the country. At the time the Advisory Committee was created, he said: “As the chief election officer of a state, ensuring the integrity of elections is my number one priority. The work of this commission will assist all state elections officers in understanding, and addressing, the problem of voter fraud.” There were probably few people in the country with Kris’s experience.

As Secretary of State of Kansas Kris had sought to impose a requirement that anyone wanting to register to vote in that state offer proof of citizenship before registering. He claimed that was needed to put an end to voter fraud. Unimpressed, the federal judge who declined to permit that requirement to go forward in federal elections, and had a much keener understanding of the scope of the problem than Kris, observed that: “There is evidence of only three instances where noncitizens actually voted in a federal election between 1995 and 2015,” and during that time only 14 non-citizens attempted to register. While serving on the Advisory Commission, Kris claimed on Breitbart news that he had found proof that 5,51l voters who voted in New Hampshire in the 2016 election were not eligible to vote. He based that on the fact that the voters lacked New Hampshire drivers’ licenses when they registered, and failed to obtain them after voting. It turned out that there is no requirement that someone registering to vote in New Hampshire using an out of state driver’s license is required to obtain a New Hampshire driver’s license after voting.

The Commission on which Kris served has been dissolved. Its activities have been referred to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Kris says he will continue as an advisor to that department, presumably so his expertise will not go to waste. Tyler Houten, a spokesperson for the DHS, said that: “Mr. Kobach is not advising the Department on this matter.” Whether he will be involved or not, Kris has found another way to spend his time that he hopes will prove to be more successful than his tilting at the windmill of imaginary voter fraud. He hopes to become Governor of Kansas. Since he has made his mark as incompetent in his recent efforts, he may be well qualified to become the governor since Sam Brownback, the man he would replace, has the second lowest approval rating of any sitting governor according a survey by Morning Consult. Through creative tax reductions initiated by Governor Brownback, it is anticipated that the state’s deficit will exceed $280 million this year.

Governor Brownback has been nominated to serve as Ambassador at large for international religious freedom and, if confirmed, will be replaced by Jeff Colyer, the lieutenant governor. Mr. Colyer has already said he will run for the position in the 2018 election, and if Governor Brownback is confirmed, he will be running as the incumbent. Kris believes his successes in bringing failed lawsuits attacking imaginary voter fraud, his claim to have seen voter fraud in New Hampshire, where none existed, and his mistaken description of himself as an advisor to the DHS, are proof that he would be a worthy successor to Governor Brownback. He is right. Whether that is what Kansas voters are hoping for, only time will tell.