Goons and agents and thugs, oh my



When I heard Newt Gingrich declare on TV yesterday morning that the health care reform law would unleash 16,000 new IRS agents to police the American people, I was reminded of the line, usually attributed to Mark Twain, about how speedily a falsehood can circle the globe.

Gingrich, the former House Republican speaker who, even in his 12th year of exile from elective politics, is still one of the GOP's most prominent verbal provocateurs, actually did his act on two networks. The message was nearly identical. On Fox News, he attacked health reform by claiming that "people are overwhelmingly opposed to hiring 16,000 IRS agents as health police." And on NBC's Today show, he said, "if you say to the average American, 'do you really want to have 16,000 more IRS agents as a brand-new health police,' they're going to say no."

Yet Gingrich, while famous for his wordplay, didn't craft this particular slogan about 16,000 new IRS agents supposedly trampling our freedom. He was merely refining a piece of agitprop that was hatched in a House Republican report back on March 18 and had already spread - with great speed, escalating hyperbole, and finally the imprimatur of gospel - to the blogs and online bulletin boards and cable TV precincts of the farflung conservative media.

And the thing is, the charge is manifestly inaccurate, at least according to the rules of evidence in the empirical world.

In the words of the nonpartisan watchdogs at, the initial GOP analysis was "based on guesswork and false assumptions, and compounded by outright misrepresentations," and that, bottom line, "the scary claim" of 16,000 IRS agents - or, as some scaremongers insist, 16,500 IRS agents - "simply lacks any foundation in fact."

Fact-free scaremongering is hardly new in American politics, of course. Two hundred and ten years ago, Thomas Jefferson's political opponents circulated leaflets warning that he was a Godless heathen who would shutter the churches. But a case can certainly be made that governing in the 21st century is a far more daunting proposition, given the 24/7 digital news cycle, the instantaenous dissemination of untruths, and, all told, the ever-widening opportunities to use technology in the service of ideological polarization.

So let's examine this talking point about "16,000 IRS agents," as yet another Exhibit A.

It all began on March 11, when the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said, in carefully hedged language, that the preliminary cost estimates of health care reform "would probably include an estimated $5 billion to $10 billion over 10 years for administrative costs at the Internal Revenue Service." (Yes, that sounds like a lot of dough - until you realize that our war in Iraq has cost us between $5 billion and $10 billion every month.)

Anyway, the Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee took that CBO statement, dropped the word "probably," and seized on the highest rough estimate, a $10-billion increase for the IRS. Then they simply made the assumption that all this money would be poured into hiring new IRS employes - "without any allowance for desks, computers, office rent, utilities, travel, or other overhead costs necessary to run any government enterprise," as the watchdogs wryly note.

The GOP report on March 18 therefore concluded that "IRS may need to hire as many as 16,500 additional auditors, agents, and other employes."

Let's give those House Republicans a little credit; they hedged their own findings, saying that the IRS "may need" to hire "as many as" 16,500 new people. But within hours, all these nuances were gone, and the real falsities commenced.

Various individual congressman sent out press releases declaring that 16,500 new IRS people - the number was suddenly cast in stone - would be hired to roam the land and make sure that every American was buying health insurance. By March 19, all those new IRS workers had morphed into IRS "agents" - in reality, a small minority of the overall IRS workforce. Hence, the headline that day on the blog sponsored by talk show host Laura Ingraham: "16,500 More IRS Agents Needed to Enforce ObamaCare."

It quickly got worse, of course. On March 21, Republican congressman Paul Ryan said on Fox News that the IRS would soon have "16,000 agents to police this new mandate." On March 22, a host on the Fox Business Network talked about "IRS goons" being put in charge of "matters that involve the most personal choices we make regarding life and death." His guest, Republican congressman Ron Paul, upped the ante still further, by warning about "16,500 armed bureaucrats...16,500 thugs coming with their guns and putting you in jail." Fox promptly posted Paul's remarks on YouTube, where it soon began to circulate as virual email.

There were more such incidents, of course - on March 25, Republican Senator John Ensign, taking a break from his sex and payoff scandal, the one currently being investigated by the Justice Department, asked on the Senate floor, "Do we want IRS agents showing up at people's houses?" - but let's pause for a moment to track the hyperbole:

The CBO makes a rough, preliminary cost estimate...A House Republican report takes the high-end preliminary estimate, and comes up with a hedged worst-case scenario for new hires...The conservative media outlets repeat this scenario, and assume that all the IRS hires will be field agents...Then the field agents all become armed agents (in truth, only "special agents" working criminal cases, just three percent of the IRS workforce, are permitted to carry guns)...and then all these armed field "agents" become demonized as "goons" and "thugs."

It's difficult for the truth to play catchup, but let's give it a try. Despite the claim of yet another Fox Business Network host, this time on March 23, that the IRS will hire "17,000 new agents and spend $10 billion so that they will check that you have the insurance you're supposed to have," the IRS' role in health reform is actually far more benign. For starters, its prime task this year - for the desk jockeys who comprise most of the IRS work force - will be to tell small-business owners about the new tax credit that comes their way as a reward for contributing to their workers' health insurance.

And what about this rumor of 16,000 - or 16,500, or 17,000 - armed thugs banging on doors to enforce the health care mandate? IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman already shot that one down, in sworn congressional testimony on March 25. When asked, point blank, whether IRS agents will be out in the field enforcing that mandate, he replied:

"No...It’s probably worth me being very clear because I think there have been some misconceptions out there." Under the new law, he explained, the insurance companies will send out forms certifying that people have health coverage that meets the mandate - much the way lenders certify to the IRS the amount of interest that somebody has paid on a mortgage. In Shulman's words: "We expect to get a simple form that we won’t look behind that says this person has acceptable health coverage. There are not going to be any discussions about health coverage with an IRS employee."

And that Ron Paul line about the IRS sending people to jail? The law itself waives criminal penalties for non-compliance ("such taxpayer shall not be subject to any criminal prosecution"). Nobody is going to jail.

All told, it would be nice if the world turned on the truth, but we know of course that the gut often trumps the intellect, that fear often crowds out reason. Besides, it's election season, when hyperbole is ascendant and partisan emotion runs high. But until Newt Gingrich, or some other messenger, surfaces anew to spook the public about an IRS "health police," I'm just offering this modest corrective - and not for any partisan purpose, by the way. The most infamous whopper of our era, after all, was uttered by a Democrat who insisted, "I did not have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."

As the late, great political columnist Lars-Erik Nelson once said, "The enemy isn't conservatism. The enemy isn't liberalism. The enemy is bulls--t."