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With This Temporary Chief, IRS to Become Enforcement-Free Zone

Nov. 13, 2017

With This Temporary Chief, IRS to Become Enforcement-Free Zone

Statement of Lisa Gilbert, Vice President of Legislative Affairs, Public Citizen

Note: David Kautter becomes acting commissioner of the IRS today. Since August, Kautter has been a political appointee reporting to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

A bad leader like David Kautter could make the IRS an enforcement-free zone – at least for President Donald Trump’s powerful friends.

IRS independence is important not only to guarantee robust enforcement of the tax laws, but to make sure the IRS is not weaponized into a political armament. With a president whose instincts are autocratic, there is every reason to fear the return of Nixon-era abuses, or perhaps far worse.

Kautter would be the first acting IRS Commissioner since at least 1955 never to have served on the IRS staff. Even though Trump has known about the end of the current commissioner’s term since before he was elected, the president has chosen to fill the position with an interim commissioner rather than name a permanent chief who would have to go through the Senate confirmation process.

Kautter’s appointment is part of a systematic effort of the Trump administration and Congress to hobble the IRS. Kautter’s experience at Ernst & Young – where he helped corporations avoid taxes rather than pay them – and his political ties to Mnuchin threaten the independence and integrity of the IRS.

This appointment could stunt enforcement and open the door for our tax system to be manipulated by well-connected billionaires willing to abuse the rules. Still worse, the IRS is responsible for helping procure financial records for the investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. The post must be filled by someone independent, not someone who minutes ago worked directly for Mnuchin.  The acting commissioner also will oversee enforcement actions such as those against billionaire Trump supporter Robert Mercer, whose hedge fund is in a dispute with the IRS over $7 billion in back taxes.

At a time when the president’s conflicts of interest are the subject of investigations into every aspect of his businesses, it is critical to have a truly qualified and independent commissioner at the IRS. We are seeing a storm of possible tax changes coming, so the need for an unbiased and experienced hand at the wheel is paramount.

The president already has shown a willingness to unilaterally order the IRS to ignore the rules when it suits him. In an executive order signed in May, Trump prohibited the IRS from enforcing the provision that keeps churches from endorsing candidates. That provision is widely supported by religious groups but opposed by a few individuals who have the president’s ear. Installing a loyalist at the top of the tax enforcement agency only worsens conflicts of interest and signals assurance to those hoping to get special treatment and evade what rules we have.