There's no doubt that both the FBI and IRS are having a tough moment with the public. Perceptions that the national police agency is at war with half of the population have eroded its standing, while Biden administration plans to super-size the tax-collection agency further sour public perceptions of that never-popular arm of government. It might all be very depressing if you work in the public sector, or you could say that Americans are finally gaining a more realistic assessment of deeply flawed federal enforcers.
Over the past week, headlines have featured massive increases in funding for the IRS and a job ad seeking tax collectors "willing to use deadly force" as well as a high-profile raid by the FBI on the Mar-a-Lago home of former President Donald Trump unprecedented in the country's history. If any publicity is good publicity, this should have been a shining moment for government arm-twisters. But both agencies are viewed with suspicion by much of the public and suffer continuously sliding approval ratings.
Tax collectors are unpopular under the best of circumstances given that they function as licensed muggers in the service of a governing apparatus deeply resented by many of the people from whom they extract funds. In 2015, Bloomberg reported that "IRS workers are miserable and overwhelmed." The article noted that Americans are sour on the revenue service and that even agents' families and friends view what they do with horror. The service's standing has been further worsened by revelations that its agents are political players.
"The IRS has long been disliked, but its employees aren't used to being vilified," Bloomberg's Devin Leonard and Richard Rubin added. "In May 2013 the agency disclosed that it had given extra scrutiny to Tea Party groups that were seeking nonprofit status. To Democrats, the decision to group together Tea Party applications and other politically oriented groups was merely a misguided attempt to find a consistent rule after years of muddled policy. … To Republicans, the IRS's hard look at Tea Party groups proved the service has a political bias."
This is the government agency Americans see getting handed an additional $80 billion even as it advertises for hires eager to "carry a firearm" and "willing to use deadly force." That doesn't go down well with everybody.
Historically, the FBI enjoyed greater public trust than the IRS, though it really deserved nothing of the sort. In recent years, though, its reputation has taken a beating.
"Internal and external reports have found lapses throughout the agency, and longtime observers, looking past the partisan haze, see a troubling picture: something really is wrong at the FBI," Time's Eric Lichtblau reported in 2018. "The FBI's crisis of credibility appears to have seeped into the jury room. The number of convictions in FBI-led investigations has declined in each of the last five years."
In addition to leaks, mismanagement, and internal chaos, the bureau has been plagued by charges of politicization. Led by then-President Trump, Republicans saw a biased agency that favored their political opponents. That impression is fueled by continuing allegations of favoritism from current and former FBI agents compiled by GOP lawmakers, making it relatively easy for Trump to convince supporters that the raid on his home was politically motivated.
Unsurprisingly, public support for both the IRS and FBI have taken a hit. While it's difficult to separate disappearing faith in those two agencies from erosion in the government's overall standing, Gallup found approval of both the FBI and the IRS plunging by 13 points from 2019 to 2021. Like almost everything else these days, there's a partisan cast to those numbers. In this polarized environment, while Americans are divided about the FBI's search of Mar-a-Lago, 76.5 percent of Republicans see "Trump's political enemies" behind the search, according to the Trafalgar Group, while 70.5 percent of Democrats attribute the raid to "the impartial justice system."
The recent empowerment of the IRS breeds more nonpartisan reaction, with 42 percent of Democrats and 48 percent of Republicans fearing increased audits, according to Politico/Morning Consult. While much of the public may believe empty assurances that tax collectors' efforts will be directed at the wealthy, a substantial number disagree, possibly because of recent reports that low-income wage earners are targeted much more often than those with more money.
IRS efforts "resulted in these low-income wage earners with less than $25,000 in total gross receipts being audited at a rate five times higher than for everyone else," Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse noted in March of this year.
You have to place a lot of faith in assurances from widely distrusted federal employees to think tax collectors will stop going after people who have limited resources with which to defend themselves.
While the headlines about the FBI and IRS are eye-grabbing, the related erosion in support is long overdue. Both government agencies have histories of abusive, corrupt, and high-handed conduct. They also have track records of political weaponization—not against one party alone, but on behalf of whoever is in power against critics and opponents.
"The FBI … has placed more emphasis on domestic dissent than on organized crime and, according to some, let its efforts against foreign spies suffer because of the amount of time spent checking up on American protest groups," the Senate's Church Committee complained in 1976.
"Two years after cases of gross misconduct by senior Internal Revenue Service officials began surfacing, a House committee has determined that the problems are widespread and probably include at least 50 to 60 'serious' examples of abuse of office," The Chicago Tribune reported in 1990.
"Since the advent of the federal income tax about a century ago, several presidents—or their zealous underlings—have directed the IRS to use its formidable police powers to harass or punish enemies, political rivals, and administration critics," The Christian Science Monitor observed in 2013.
"Nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000," The Washington Post reported in 2015.
That's an impressively awful record for two agencies that are finally losing substantial public support. The IRS and the FBI aren't bad because they're under the control of the wrong political party, they're bad because they've always been rotten to the core. At a moment of national revelation about the flaws of tax collectors and federal cops, Americans need to realize that we're all at risk.