ObamaCare, to paraphrase Joe Biden, is still a big flippin’ deal — especially for the tax authorities at the Internal Revenue Service. A Government Accountability Office report on IRS efforts to manage its $881 million implementation of the law opens by describing ObamaCare as “a massive undertaking that involves 47 statutory provisions and extensive coordination across not only IRS, but multiple agencies and external partners.” That sounds exciting!
Under the law, the IRS is expected to do a lot of the heavy bureaucratic lifting, especially when it comes to the law’s health insurance exchanges, where tax credits will be doled out based on income. That’s no small task. “To support the exchanges,” the GAO report notes, “IRS must modify existing or design new IT systems that are capable of transmitting data to and from HHS, help HHS craft eligibility determinations and related definitions, and engage in new interagency coordination, such as with HHS and the Department of Labor.”
It’s a Rube Goldberg, in other words, and the IRS is one of the central components. The GAO gives the IRS so-so marks for its work thus far: Some of its risk mitigation goals have been checked off, for example, but GAO also notes that the tax agency has only "minimally met" its goal of producing "credible" cost estimates for implementation work.
Yet this doesn't tell the whole story. As we already know, the great and powerful government machine imagined by the legislators who authored the bill turns out to be easier to imagine than to build. A recent study warned that under the most likely methods of calculating the law’s insurance subsidies, large numbers of people were likely to end up being given the wrong credits. And the network infrastructure necessary to run the exchanges is more of a headache than expected. (Who could have imagined that designing a large-scale IT project intended to instantly assess the personal data of millions of Americans and coordinating it across multiple state and federal government entities would turn out to be a mess?)
ObamaCare represents a sort of all-hands-on-deck moment for America’s technocrats and government administrators — a challenge for everyone from the chin-stroking policy wonks to the administration messaging operations to the federal and state worker bees tasked with carrying out the directives and assembling the individual parts. But even forgetting the legal and political barriers to the law, it’s not at all clear that they’ll be able to pull it off.