Throughout world history tax collectors have been almost universally reviled, despised and demeaned. Never mind that, for the most part, they are just doing their jobs: making sure taxes that are due to the treasury are paid to the treasury.
They don't levy taxes, after all, they just ensure they get collected. It is a job that is both unpleasant and necessary to maintain an organized society. But the governed usually do not like them much and the recent scandal involving the IRS makes it clear that we Americans are no exception.
The IRS felt the sting of public sentiment when it was revealed that agents of the massive bureaucracy had been targeting conservative groups for scrutiny and harassment. The outrage was palpable. So much so that the Obama administration has already begun exploring necessary agency reform.
There were, of course, some defenders both within and outside the administration. Their arguments fell in one of two categories: (A) These were merely overzealous rogue agents or (B) they were just doing their job trying to uncover tax fraud being perpetrated by these evil groups.
Neither of these arguments seem to have gained much traction with a public that is, as we said, predisposed to resent and fear the Internal Revenue Service.
Matters didn't improve when Lois G. Lerner, the IRS's director of the exempt organizations division, offered public statements that earned her four Pinocchios from fact-checkers at the Washington Post just before her appearance before Congress, where she said she had done nothing wrong and then invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The action preserved her legal position well enough, but it did her agency no favors in the court of public opinion.
Now comes an internal audit report that says the IRS spent an estimated $50 million on at least 225 conferences for employees over a three-year span beginning in fiscal 2010.
The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration details the many conferences, but its most ironic finding is that investigators could not independently verify the total costs, because the agency failed to keep records of all expenses.
Really? The agency that wants detailed records on everything doesn't keep adequate records of its own expenditures?
The report specifically highlights an August 2010 conference in Anaheim for about 2,600 agency employees that cost roughly $4.1 million and featured two training videos that auditors estimate cost at least $60,000 to produce. One is a "Star Trek" parody featuring an elaborate mock-up of the bridge of the starship Enterprise.
This reminds us of similar stories last year about lavish conferences hosted for employees of the General Services Administration.
Clearly reform is needed. Acting IRS Commissioner Daniel Werfel acknowledges the spending and calls it "an unfortunate vestige from a prior era." It is now Werfel's job to fix the abuses and curtail the lavish spending.