Bashing the Internal Revenue Service has become a no-brainer for politicians and pundits. With congressional hearings full of the sob stories of taxpayers wronged by the IRS, the average person no doubt views the dreaded agency as being run by subpoena-happy cowboys who like to invade taxpayer privacy and then put them through audit hell.
But in the case of the IRS, thousands of nameless, faceless bureaucrats - most of whom do an incredible job under trying circumstances - are being attacked simply because they are trying to make sure people pay their fair share of taxes.
From where I sit, the attack on the IRS is nothing more than a red herring by powerful groups in this country to take the pressure off themselves. Those screaming the loudest tend to be the very rich, who would prefer paying a lot less in taxes, and those who cheat on their taxes voraciously and would like to continue to do so.
These groups use the animus they've inspired against the IRS to either call for the elimination of the agency or the elimination of the tax code. Those may be noble goals, but they have nothing to do with how and why the IRS operates as it does.
To be sure, there have been abuses at the IRS, just like there have been abuses throughout government and business.
Take some journalists, for example, who accept thousands of dollars in speaking fees to talk to groups that they invariably also cover. Despite this blatant conflict of interest, they never inform their readers or their viewers of these external arrangements. Some don't even tell their bosses. In fact, the only entity they do tell is the IRS, who keeps their dirty little secret.
Then there are the politicians, those citizen-legislators who believe the world owes them a little extra something for the sacrifice of being a public servant. Former Chicago Mayor Eugene Sawyer told about the time he accepted a $30,000 "finder's fee" from a zoning lawyer after approving a zoning change in his ward. When caught, he was quick to point out that he declared the payment on his income taxes.
The truth is that in my dozen years as a reporter, I have found that IRS special agents have performed ethically and responsibly in rooting out public corruption. And as Al Capone can attest, it's often the IRS that becomes the investigator of last resort.
Consider, for example, former Tennessee Gov. Ray Blanton, who engineered an elaborate extortion scheme by awarding liquor licenses only to those who would kick back a percentage of the liquor store profits. It was the IRS that unraveled the complicated arrangement where Blanton had a liquor store owner purchase his worthless investment in a Texas oil deal.
Then there is the former Tennessee Democratic congressman, William Boner, whose misuse of his office for personal gain inspired a House Ethics Committee investigation. Though the committee didn't issue its scathing report until after he resigned, Boner did amend his income tax returns five times.
Yes, the critics say, but politicians deserve scrutiny. It's the average citizen that is abused. I've been audited by letter twice in my 20 years as a taxpayer. The first time the IRS was wrong, and after several months of correspondence the agency dropped its inquiry. The second time I had failed to include all my interest income on my 1040. The IRS caught that error and said, by the way, that I owed even more money. They were wrong on that. I paid the money I owed and that was the extent of the probe.
Granted, the experiences caused some anxiety. But as someone who pays his fair share of taxes, the last thing I want to see is a dilution of the resources and investigative powers of the IRS.
For the most part, our tax code is based on the honor system. I want the IRS around for those who have no honor.
* Joel Kaplan, a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune, is chair of the newspaper journalism department at Syracuse University's Newhouse School.