Photo Credit: Paul Brady Photography
Like many of former President Trump’s appointees, Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Charles Rettig made a name for himself combatting the very agency he would later lead. Before getting appointed to the position in 2018, Rettig worked for over 30 years as a tax attorney in Beverly Hills representing some of the wealthiest Americans against tax audits and other enforcement actions. When the IRS sought to tackle elite tax evasion with the formation of its Global High Wealth Industry Group in 2010, Rettig described the Group’s actions as “audits from hell,” displaying his contempt for the IRS doing its basic due diligence.
That Rettig is presiding over the IRS as Joseph Biden is pushing a major revamp of the American tax system, that would up the rates on the wealthiest Americans and corporations, is absurd. It’s even more absurd when you realize how bad his tenure as the nation’s top tax collector has been. If Biden is committed to seeing his tax proposals through and creating a fair and just tax system for the many, he should dispense with Washington norms that would allow Rettig to keep his position through the end of his term in November of 2022 and, instead, exercise his clear legal authority to fire Rettig and install a new Commissioner of the IRS.
Retting has done little to revitalize the IRS which, since 2010 has suffered enormous budget and staff cuts, making a competent commissioner crucial to manage and direct dwindling resources. Instead, Rettig used his time at the IRS to favor the wealthy while penalizing the poor.
For decades, the IRS has disproportionately audited claimants of the Earned Income Tax Credit, a program aimed to subsidize incomes of the working poor. But Rettig made things worse. Faced with a decreasing budget, Rettig cut audits of the wealthy and large corporations substantially while continuing to pursue EITC claimants.
If the IRS is ever going to address this massive injustice in its treatment of low- versus high-income taxpayers, it will need a Commissioner willing to, at minimum, acknowledge said injustice exists. Rettig is not that person. Instead, he has repeatedly pointed to figures from 2015, several years prior to when he became Commissioner, when the highest income individuals were about seven times more likely to be audited than EITC claimants. While the IRS generally has three years to audit submitted tax returns, preliminary data indicates that the audits of top-earning taxpayers have plummeted; the IRS now audits EITC claimants and the top 1 percent of earners at roughly the same rate. In over-auditing EITC claimants, Rettig and the IRS are undermining the statutory right of taxpayers to “a fair and just tax system.”
Moreover, the one IRS budget request since Rettig has been Commissioner — fiscal year 2020 — included major cuts to taxpayer services, which are crucial particularly for low-income taxpayers trying to navigate the complicated tax rules. Meanwhile, from 2018 to 2019, the number of revenue agents, revenue officers, and special agents at the IRS fell by 5.6 percent, 4.4 percent, and 2 percent, respectively.
Finally, Rettig is also a long-time Trump defender and associate. When Democrats demanded that Trump release his tax returns during the 2016 presidential election, Rettig, speaking then as a private citizen, defended Trump’s refusal as a sound decision for someone under audit. After Trump took office, with pressure mounting from congressional Democrats to reveal his tax returns, Rettig remained outspoken in his support of Trump’s tax opacity. After Trump nominated him, he failed to disclose his financial ties to a Trump-branded hotel in Hawaii prior to his confirmation hearing.
Given his record in defending the wealthy, auditing the poor, and worsening the already outrageous giveaways to the rich in the 2017 tax bill, Rettig should not be the one entrusted to lead the IRS going forward. With major tax changes impending and the expiration of recession-era budget freezes in September, Biden and Congress have an opportunity to rehabilitate the tax system for the benefit of all. But the current IRS leadership stands in the way. That means Charles Rettig has to go, and sooner rather than later.
Joseph Biden, fire Charles Rettig.
Sion Bell is a Research Assistant at the Revolving Door Project where they focus on taxation and rebuilding the civil service.