By Jon Cassidy | Watchdog Texas bureau
It was a big night for Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes.
At a gala ceremony at the Kennedy Center Wednesday, he got a $250,000 check along with an award from the Bradley Foundation for his contribution to conservative politics.
Here’s the Ailes quote:
“The federal government is about to hire 16,000 more IRS agents to enforce health care. Forty-seven new tax increases! No wonder they need guns! We already know the IRS is arrogant. They waste as much money as other government agencies. They enjoy pushing people around. And they can’t line dance! We don’t need 16,000 more people who can’t line dance. And we don’t need more people with guns enforcing our health care! Hi, granny, get your hands up, we’re tired of telling you this, but take your Metamucil.”
This was a “fever dream” and “insanely misinformed rant,” in Chait’s words. Maddow called it a bunch of “politically motivated falsehoods.”
First, Ailes was making a joke. (“Earth to Meekus, I knew that.”) Nobody believes there will be literal gunpoint fiber ingurgitation. Ailes has a genius for vivid imagery — that’s why they pay him the big bucks — and granny at gunpoint communicates the absurdity of Obamacare better than 1,000 abstract nouns.
Ailes might have said, “Government is lawful force, which we tolerate as preferable to the lawless forces of anarchy. It’s meant to protect us from others, and when we use it to protect us from ourselves, we get a coercive nanny state.”
See? “Granny” beats abstractions.
Chait recognizes the art of phrase. He calls the “armed-IRS-agents-threatening-granny” line “a concoction of utter genius,” but thinks “(e)ach individual assertion in his claim is insane.”
In fact, its not much of a stretch. IRS agents do storm businesses with guns drawn (here, here, here, here, and here). And it’s important to remember that grandmothers aren’t all over 65 and on Medicare, not that the literal applicability has any bearing on the truth of a metaphor.
SO, THAT LEAVES US WITH an argument over two of Ailes’ numbers: 47 tax increases and 16,000 IRS agents.
On the first of these, Maddow is right – there aren’t 47 tax increases in Obamacare. But there are 47 tax-enforcement provisions, according to the Government Accountability Office. At least we think so. The Treasury Inspector General found “at least 42 provisions add to amend the Internal Revenue Code.”
Note the “at least” and pause for a moment to see that even government officials don’t know for sure. Here’s the source – an IRS rulemaking notice – how many enforcement provisions you count?
Does your brain hurt yet? And that’s the slimmed down, simple version. Have you ever poked around in the Affordable Care Act itself? It’s enough to make you want to ban words.
Among the tax-enforcement provisions, there are at least 18 new taxes, and a few tax credits for things such as adoption, small businesses, and mutual insurance company startups. Most of the rest of the 47ish provisions involve closing tax exemptions, which is a new tax for anyone affected.
The fact that these provisions include “things that are the opposite of a tax increase,” as Chait described the credits, doesn’t mean that Ailes’ phrase is a “distortion.” It’s wrong, but it’s not deceptive. There are, in fact, dozens of new tax provisions to raise money that will be given out through other tax provisions.
And if Maddow wants to insist otherwise — that the exact number is the important thing — then she has an obligation to go back to that rulemaking thicket and tally the provisions by type.
The important thing, Maddow and Chait insist, is that the IRS is hiring people “not for ‘enforcing’ health care but helping process tax credits…”
Why didn’t anyone tell me this sooner? They’re helping! I hope they’re ready for a big hug.
I AGREE WITH MADDOW that the 16,000 new agents number is not well supported – it’s basically long division by a committee staffer. I’d guess it’ll be more than 16,000.
For Maddow the number isn’t even “rooted in reality.” But she knows full well that the number is rooted in a kind of reality: it comes from a report by Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp.
Of course, like so much in the convoluted Affordable Care Act, Camp’s number was based on a guess, too. Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf said in 2010 that the IRS would need to spend $5 billion to $10 billion on Obamacare enforcement over its first decade, and Health and Human Services would spend about the same. You call a range like that “an educated guess.”
Ways and Means staff figured that $10 billion would pay the salaries of 16,500 people, or 11,800 if you factored in overhead. You call that “rooted in reality.”
But there’s only so much fact-checking you can do on a guess. FactCheck.org actually tried to take those salary figures and multiply them by a 1.4 percent increase in the Employment Cost Index, and then compound that over the decade, which is a bit like trying to figure out 83.42 percent of “some.” Doesn’t anyone remember the concept of significant figures?
FactCheck.org spins the issue as hard as anyone, asserting that the “law requires the IRS mostly to hand out tax credits, not collect penalties.”
I hope I have enough hugs.
Elmendorf’s 2010 letter noted that the “CBO has not completed an estimate of all of the discretionary costs that would be associated” with Obamacare. Three years later, it still hasn’t, citing the same old guesswork.
That tells you everything. They still don’t know how much this is going to cost. Nobody does.
The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration found that the IRS is unprepared to implement Obamacare, which it described as “the largest set of tax law changes in more than 20 years.”
The IRS already has 1,272 employees implementing Obamacare, and requested funding for 1,954 for 2014.
Here’s how Businessweek describes the task they face:
“The agency has to figure out a way to flag the tax returns of the 3 million people expected to skip insurance. It has to come up with a system for doling out annual subsidies to 18 million people who make roughly $45,000 or less, and another mechanism to deliver yearly tax credits to small businesses—all the while making sure nobody games the system. It will have to start collecting taxes on medical devices as well as a Medicare surtax on Americans who make more than $200,000. It also will be responsible for conducting more audits of tax-exempt hospitals.”
The IRS has a few years to ramp up its operation, but by 2017 it’s going to need to be able to handle 27 million people getting new health insurance.
Former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman asked Congress last year for a $1.3 billion budget increase to get ready for Obamacare, which tells you Elmendorf’s guess was in the ballpark, even conservative.
Nobody has established just how many workers will be needed once Obamacare actually takes effect. The IRS has spent $1 billion in preparation, but that’s because they were appropriated exactly $1 billion.
I guess Maddow could decide on her own that the IRS probably has enough people, that this 3 percent increase in staffing is all the agency will ever need to handle the biggest tax law change in 20 years. But I don’t know who’s making that argument other than liberal journalists.
The IRS says it needs more people. Camp and Ailes think they’ll need more.
But let’s look at the question from a different angle. Here are the 47 things the IRS has to do. (I hope nobody spent too much time sorting out that awful IRS version I linked to; Grover Norquist has done it for us.)
Consider how much work it will be to apply those 47 requirements to a population of 314 million people and then take a guess as to whether 1,947 employees are really enough to get the job done.
What happens if they’re off not by a few thousand, but by an order of magnitude or more? What sort of train wreck will hit the economy?
And think of the poor agents. They might not even have enough time left for all the helping.
NOW, IF I WERE GOING TO OBJECT to anything Ailes said Wednesday night, it would be this: “We covered Benghazi when four Americans were killed, even though no other network would touch the story.”
Sorry, but CBS News’ Sharyl Attkisson deserves a lot of credit, even if her network doesn’t. She’s been all over this story, breaking the news that the State Department told the White House on the day of the Benghazi attack that Ansar al-Sharia was taking credit.
Surely, Ailes knows this as well as he knows that she won the Edward R. Murrow Award for her reporting on Fast and Furious. I bet he’s tried to recruit her, given how unwelcome her reporting has been at her own network.
But it would be hard for Maddow to mention Attkisson this news cycle without bringing up the story that broke just a few hours before she blogged about Ailes: the CBS correspondent’s computer was hacked several times in late 2012.
“While no malicious code was found, forensic analysis revealed an intruder had executed commands that appeared to involve search and exfiltration of data,” CBS News reported. “This party also used sophisticated methods to remove all possible indications of unauthorized activity, and alter system times to cause further confusion. CBS News is taking steps to identify the responsible party and their method of access.”
That’s not a phishing bot. The news reports around the country won’t say it directly, but the reason this is news around the country is obvious: it sounds like a leak investigation gone way too far. Does anybody really think this administration would have a hard time coming up with another legalistic justification?
So there’s Maddow’s problem: She could point out that Ailes was factually wrong to hog all the credit, but that would just remind her audience that the Obama Administration they so admire has fallen into pig’s trough of scandal.
Contact Jon Cassidy at email@example.com or @jpcassidy000.