The Future of Freedom Foundation: The Sordid History of IRS Political Abuse

By James Bovard.

The power to tax has long conferred the power to destroy one’s political opponents. When the latest IRS politicization scandal erupted in May, many commentators talked as if the abuses were a novelty in American history. But, as David Burnham noted in his masterful 1990 book, A Law Unto Itself: The IRS and the Abuse of Power, “In almost every administration since the IRS’s inception the information and power of the tax agency have been mobilized for explicitly political purposes.”

The IRS has a long history of trying to ruin the political careers of its critics. In 1925, Internal Revenue Commissioner David Blair personally delivered a demand for $10 million in back taxes to Michigan’s Republican Sen. James Couzens — who had launched an investigation of the Bureau of Internal Revenue — as he stepped out of the Senate chamber. Couzens fought the case, and eventually proved that he had actually overpaid his taxes by roughly $1 million. But the precedent of using threats to deflect oversight was firmly established.

President Franklin Roosevelt used the IRS to harass newspaper publishers, including William Randolph Hearst and Moses Annenberg (publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer). He also dropped the IRS hammer on political rivals such as Huey Long and Father Coughlin, and prominent Republicans like former Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon. Perhaps Roosevelt’s most pernicious tax skullduggery occurred in 1944 when he spiked an IRS audit of massive illegal campaign contributions from a government contractor to Texas Rep. Lyndon Johnson. Johnson’s career would likely have been destroyed if Texans had learned of his dirty dealing. Instead, Johnson survived, and scores of thousands of Americans and more than a million Vietnamese died as a result.

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