With all those years of carping about the horribly politicized Clinton IRS, you'd sorta think the Bush Treasury Department would keep its own nose clean for more than a few months.
The New York Times reported today that the IRS will soon begin sending letters out to scores of millions of Americans. The letters are essentially a political advertisement for President Bush in the guise of a tax announcement.
"We are pleased to inform you that the United States Congress passed â and President George W. Bush signed into law â the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, which provides long-term tax relief for all Americans who pay income taxes ... The new tax law provides immediate tax relief in 2001 and long-term tax relief for the years to come ... [it is] just the first installment of the long-term tax relief provided by the new law."
A career employee at the IRS apparently leaked the letter to congressional Democrats. The article includes some quotes from government watchdogs rightly skewering this as a transparent effort to use the IRS to fund a massive 'thank you President Bush' ad campaign, as well as quotes from Frank Keith, a flack at the IRS, saying this was just a public service with information "the taxpayer needs."
A few points about this blinding display of Bush team hubris seem to have escaped mention, however.
The goodie the letter is taking credit for (an immediate tax rebate to a fairly wide cross section of taxpayers) is the one aspect of the tax bill which President Bush didn't want, and Democrats had to force on him.
Also, the contention that this is just an informational letter is rather belied by the fact that the text is cribbed directly from talking points generated by the White House political operation.
As attentive Talking Points reader will remember, the Bush White House long sold the tax plan on its universality -- a tax cut for all Americans. That is, until critics began pointing out that income taxes are only one kind of taxes Americans pay. Most Americans pay more payroll taxes than income taxes. And Americans who only pay payroll taxes don't get jack from the Bush plan.
The administration cavilled over this detail for a bit, but finally conceded the point and this Spring added a short blurb to end of the standard Bush boiler plate -- making 'tax relief for all Americans' into 'tax relief for all Americans who pay incomes taxes.'
And surprise, surprise, that very line is now part of the IRS letter. How'd that happen?
The IRS spokesman told the Times that the letter was "a collaborative effort between the agency and its parent, the Treasury Department." That's actually not to surprising, since Paul O'Neill -- once praised as refreshing moderate on the Bush team -- has of late emerged as a strikingly political and ideological Treasury chief. Of which we'll be saying more soon.