It was with mixed feelings that I watched John Oliver's defense of the US Internal Revenue Service on his show Last Week Tonight.
For those of you who don't know him, Oliver is a British comedian who had the good fortune to land in a country - the United States - where the political system is so screwed up that it sits up and begs for political satire. As a US citizen living abroad I've stopped following too closely the US political scene because it is predictably pathetic. And it is not just the crazy Republicans either; the Democrats are a few bricks shy of a load, too.
None of this lunacy will be healed any time soon (and, alas, I know of no medicine for what ails us) , which means that John Oliver possesses something that millions of US citizens would love to have: job security. And he will never run out of topics as long as he lives in the "Land of the Free" because even in good times the US is a big messy democracy, something that H.L. Mencken enjoyed so much because: "It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing."
His defense of the IRS is amusing but not his best work. The song at the end is sappy and silly and not particularly funny. His attempts to tug at our heartstrings, however, is. They do a necessary job, he says, for which they are hated. Yes, that's true. In fact it's true of just about any country on this planet. When Oliver describes the venom Americans spit at their tax authorities, he's not giving us a shining example of Americans exceptionalism - he's just showing that Americans are no different from anyone else in the world where it's simply a reality that nobody loves the local "fisc".
Oliver's point, however, about the IRS budget cuts was right on the money. But he missed a fabulous opportunity to explain something important to the American people. It's not just the budget cuts that are causing turmoil in that agency, it's also the expansion of the IRS scope and responsibilities. Congress, in its great wisdom (or complete insanity) handed them both the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and something called the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA).
The IRS Commissioner John Koskinen and Nina Olson, the National Taxpayer Advocate, have fired back pointing out to both Congress and the American people of something that every competent project manager understands: you don't expand scope and cut budget at the same time.
A truly funny aspect of all this is that FATCA was supposed to be all gain and no pain. Hell, it was written so that all of the cost would be borne by those foreign financial institutions. Foreign countries didn't find that amusing at all and agreements were reached that require American banks to do similar reporting to countries outside the United States.
But the bill on the US side goes beyond the banks: Koskinen drew a straight line for Congress between FATCA implementation and those "courtesy disconnects" and long lines at IRS offices that Americans in the homeland are suffering.. We must implement these things on your orders, he said, and with lower budgets something has to give. That something is customer service.
So Americans in the homeland - the ones who can't afford professional tax help - are paying for FATCA, albeit in an indirect way. I think it's worth mentioning because it is rather ironic, isn't it?
That a law to catch "rich tax evaders" instead causes direct harm to working Americans everywhere.
And the faute (and it is a faute lourde) should be laid exactly where it belongs - with the not so funny repercussions of a dysfunctional political system.