The country's chief tax collector pushed back Monday against assertions that working for the Internal Revenue Service has become more dangerous as a result of growing anti-government sentiment and the recent passage of President Obama's health care plan.
"No, the risk has not increased," IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman said. "There has been a lot of stuff in the press about increased threats, which is actually inaccurate."
Fears that IRS employees could be targets soared after a Feb. 18 incident in which a disgruntled Texas software engineer flew a small plane into the side of an IRS facility in Austin. One longtime agency employee was killed in the attack.
Some liberal groups and bloggers also have raised fears that anti-tax and anti-government rhetoric employed on talk radio and by protesters within the "tea party" movement could incite violence against IRS agents. Critics of Mr. Obama's health care reform plan in the Republican Party and the tea party movement have warned that the government plans to hire thousands more IRS agents to enforce the plan's mandate that all citizens purchase health care coverage.
But Mr. Shulman, in a luncheon address at the National Press Club, said that had not been the case.
"What there has been is increased chatter on the Internet that has an anti-government sentiment, and the issue of taxes has gotten swept into it," he said. "And there's a lot of difference between people not liking taxes, people not liking the tax system or having issues with the government, and it actually being a safety issue for my employees."
Mr. Shulman, named to head the tax agency and its $11 billion budget in March 2008, offered no details on staff changes or other moves that the IRS plans for the implementation of the just-signed Patient Protection and Affordability Act.
"We're looking at all of the implications for resources for this and many other bills," he said. "It's way too early to say what we're going to need three or four years from now."
However, Mr. Shulman dismissed reports that the agency will hire tens of thousands of additional agents to track down Americans who refuse to buy health insurance.
There will not be "agents going into the field," said Mr. Shulman, who spoke 10 days before the April 15 tax-filing deadline. "There are no criminal sanctions, no levying of bank accounts."
The Treasury Department inspector general for tax administration, J. Russell George, who oversees the IRS, has said the difficult economy and stepped-up enforcement could produce a "confluence of events" that increases the danger of attack for IRS employees.
The inspector general's office has tracked an average of more than 900 threats annually against the tax service or its employees, resulting in 195 convictions between 2001 and 2008. Congress recently renewed provisions of a law that allows the IRS to provide armed escorts for agents in situations viewed as having the potential to become violent.
Mr. Shulman said he took every report of a threat against IRS personnel seriously, and the agency offered "awareness training" to employees on potential dangers.
"But there have not been, you know, any sort of scaled-up actual, specific threats against IRS employees," he said Monday. "I think a lot of the reporting is just more general around some of the anti-government rhetoric that you hear out there."
Still, Mr. Shulman acknowledged Americans' long frustration with the IRS. He cited the 1990s as one of the worst periods because the tax system "kept changing and getting more complex."
He said the federal government made an effort to improve the system with the IRS Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998 and that his agency would try more simplification.
"We're going to continue to improve," Mr. Shulman said. "We're open to new ideas and best practices, and we'll throw out what doesn't work."
He also said the agency this year will collect roughly $2.4 trillion in taxes from Americans and pay out roughly $300 billion in refunds.
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