Americans are just a week from April 15, the deadline to file their federal tax returns. If you're having trouble and hoping the Internal Revenue Service might be able to help answer questions, the Washington Postreports you might not enjoy the experience. Congress slashed the agency's budget over the course of several years, and the IRS itself describes the state of customer service as "abysmal."
Nationwide, only 4 in 10 callers to the agency's toll-free help line are getting through to a real person. The number of "courtesy disconnects" — a euphemism for an overloaded system hanging up on the customer — has reached 5 million so far this year, the agency reported.
When callers do get a real person, they can forget about asking questions that require expertise. These are now considered "out of scope." The customer-service agents have been instructed to only tell callers what tax forms they need, where to get them and where to look for online information. Staff can no longer offer line-by-line assistance, provide guidance on tax planning or tax law, or help make payment arrangements.
Even if you don't have questions or need a hand, the fact that the IRS has been gutted affects everyone: the Post's report added, "And with 5,000 fewer agents than four years ago to go after tax cheats, officials estimate that $2 billion in revenue will go uncollected."
I think there's probably a caricature in some people's minds of bloated government offices filled with wasteful spending and bored paper-pushers punching a clock. Let's be clear: that's not the IRS, where offices no longer have printers because the agency couldn't afford the maintenance contract. Some employees in field offices -- the ones that haven't already been closed -- have been told by operations managers that they can't afford calculators or calendars.
For years, Republicans have been looking for an IRS scandal. Given the tax agency's current predicament, I'd say we've found one.
Today's installment of campaign-related news items that won't necessarily generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers:
* Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is reportedly benefiting from "a cluster" of affiliated super PACs that are on track to raise $31 million this week. If that's accurate, it's a startlingly large haul and will help position the far-right Texan as a top-tier candidate.
* In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel won a second term in a runoff election yesterday, overcoming a challenge from Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia. With nearly all the votes counted, the incumbent won by roughly 11 percentage points.
* Voters in Ferguson, Missouri, yesterday elected a more diverse city council. The six-member council had just one African-American member, and now it will have three.
* There was also a confusing election in Wisconsin yesterday: "In a result befitting politically polarized Wisconsin, voters on Tuesday re-elected a State Supreme Court justice seen as liberal, but passed a constitutional amendment that will most likely lead to the installation of a conservative chief justice."
* Despite his highly controversial background, Jesse Benton will oversee Sen. Rand Paul's (R-Ky.) presidential super PAC.
* As unbelievable as this may seem, Donald Trump now has four paid staffers in Iowa, including three new hires announced yesterday. One of the four is a GOP operative who helped Rick Santorum's Iowa campaign in 2012.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) has made no real effort to hide his support for a military confrontation with Iran. But in an interview yesterday on the Family Research Council's radio show, the right-wing freshman went a little further, suggesting bombing Iran would be quick and simple.
Indeed, as BuzzFeed's report noted, Cotton argued that U.S. strikes in Iran would go much smoother than the invasion of Iraq "and would instead be similar to 1999's Operation Desert Fox, a four-day bombing campaign against Iraq ordered by President Bill Clinton."
"Even if military action were required -- and we certainly should have kept the credible threat of military force on the table throughout which always improves diplomacy -- the president is trying to make you think it would be 150,000 heavy mechanized troops on the ground in the Middle East again as we saw in Iraq and that's simply not the case," Cotton said.
"It would be something more along the lines of what President Clinton did in December 1998 during Operation Desert Fox. Several days [of] air and naval bombing against Iraq's weapons of mass destruction facilities for exactly the same kind of behavior."
For the record, the Arkansas Republican did not use the word "cakewalk" or assure listeners that we'd be "greeted as liberators."
It's been about two decades since Newt Gingrich unveiled the "Contract with America,' touting specific Republican proposals to require balanced budgets and impose term-limits on members of Congress. In hindsight, the stunt is generally seen as a success -- the GOP won the House and Senate in 1994 -- but most voters didn't recognize the "Contract" and its provisions were largely forgotten soon after.
The public-relations gambit came to mind yesterday, however, listening to Sen. Rand Paul's (R-Ky.) kickoff speech for his presidential campaign:
"Congress has an abysmal record with balancing anything. Our only recourse is to force Congress to balance the budget with a constitutional Amendment!
"I have been to Washington and let me tell you -- there is no monopoly of knowledge there. I ran for office because we have too many career politicians. I believe it now more than ever. We limit the President to two terms. It's about time we limit the terms of Congress!"
Behold, the innovative new Republican candidate with a fresh perspective ... who also happens to be recycling ideas from 1994.
The senator's pitch is on weak substantive ground. A balanced budget amendment, to the Constitution, for example, remains the worst idea in the history of bad ideas. For that matter, hearing Rand Paul condemn "career politicians" is amusing given that Ron Paul served 12 terms in Congress and ran for president several times.
Indeed, imagine if Ron Paul was told, just part way through his career, that he could no longer serve in Congress -- regardless of whether his constituents supported him; regardless of the quality of the work he was doing -- because "conservatives" decided to impose an arbitrary mechanism that artificially limited how often Americans could re-elect their own representatives.
That's now part of Rand Paul's "liberty" platform. What's more, he's not the only one pushing the idea.
It's been eight months since President Obama launched a military offensive against ISIS targets in the Middle East. It's been four months since the president publicly called on Congress to authorize the ongoing mission. It's been three months since Obama used part of his State of the Union address to urge lawmakers to take action. It's been two months since the White House, at Congress' insistence, sent a draft resolution to Capitol Hill for consideration.
But as of now, Congress intends to do literally nothing. Lawmakers can't agree on the scope of a resolution authorizing the conflict, so they're prepared to simply take a pass.
That does not mean, of course, that the mission against ISIS must cease. On the contrary, Obama continues to launch airstrikes on ISIS targets and help lead an international coalition. He's just doing so without any real limits or legal authorization. Congress has effectively told the administration, "Go ahead and wage war. We're staying out of it."
But while Obama uses force against ISIS, the president is also working with an international coalition to prevent a war with Iran. Indeed, the White House has had considerable success, helping create a diplomatic framework, embraced by most U.S. allies, that would block Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
And wouldn't you know it, all of a sudden, Congress has decided to leap to action, reasserting its foreign-policy role in such a way as to possibly kill the international agreement. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told Greg Sargent he's concerned about the obvious double-standard.
"I'm first in line to reassert the power of Congress to stand next to the executive on foreign policy," Murphy [said]. "We have a Constitutional obligation to approve or disapprove of the war against ISIS. We do not have a Constitutional obligation to approve or disapprove an executive agreement with Iran." Murphy notes, however, that a Congressional vote will be necessary to approve any permanent lifting of Congressional sanctions, which makes a Congressional vote on an Iran deal inevitable. [...]
"There's clearly a double-standard," Murphy argues. "Congress wants to be all over his diplomatic engagement, while appearing eager at times to stand aside when he intervenes militarily."
This is such an important and frequently overlooked point.
The National Rifle Association's annual convention kicks off in Nashville this week, with 70,000 people expected to participate in the three-day gathering.
Attendees can expect to find the usual NRA fare and exhibitors at the 350,000-square-foot Music City Center, but they shouldn't expect to find functioning weapons. The Tennesseanreports this week on the "multilevel security plan," which includes an important safety measure: "All guns on the convention floor will be nonoperational, with the firing pins removed, and any guns purchased during the NRA convention will have to be picked up at a Federal Firearms License dealer, near where the purchaser lives, and will require a legal identification."
The National Rifle Association wants guns at schools, but not its own annual convention. [...]
NRA boss Wayne LaPierre has called repeatedly for allowing guns in schools, and other facilities. LaPierre says arming teachers and guards will help prevent gun violence. At least, outside the NRA's own events.
Of course, there's also a political angle to keep in mind as the far-right group gathers in Tennessee.
Swing by Sen. Rand Paul's (R-Ky.) new website for his presidential campaign and visitors will see many of the typical features for any candidate: an issues page, a donations page, information on how to volunteer, etc. What visitors won't see is any reference to the Kentucky Republican's current job: the candidate is described as "Dr. Rand Paul." The word "senator" is nowhere to be found.
Indeed, in the candidate's online store, the first item for sale is an eye chart featuring "Dr." in big bold letters above the candidate's official slogan.
Andrew Kaczynski noted this week that it's part of a broader branding overhaul.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is now going by "doctor" on Twitter and has a new handle entirely. [...]
Removing the title of "senator" from his Twitter handle could be one step in a presidential campaign that is expected to use antiestablishment and anti-Washington themes.
In his official campaign kick-off speech yesterday, Paul twice referenced his work as a physician, but the words "Senate" and "senator" were not uttered. In fact, at one point, Paul told his audience, "I have been to Washington" -- as if he were some kind of tourist who briefly visited the nation's capital, rather than a sitting member of Congress since 2011.
As a matter of political strategy, all of this seems smart. Since medical professionals are widely respected -- and politicians are not -- it stands to reason that Paul would want to remind voters about his professional background, while putting some distance between his candidacy and the unpopular institution in which he serves.
But in the senator's case, there's also a downside.
There have been several high-profile incidents in recent memory involving a white police officer killing an unarmed African-American civilian. And as debates have unfolded and the national conversation has progressed, there are skeptics, often on the right, who offer a "Yes, but" response to the tragedies.
Those concerned with possible police abuses point to the Eric Garner case, prompting skeptics to argue, "Yes, but he resisted arrest." In the Michael Brown case, they argue, "Yes, but there was an altercation between the victim and the officer." In the Tamir Rice case, they argue, "Yes, but the 911 call gave the officer the wrong impression."
Late yesterday afternoon, the New York Timesreported on a deadly shooting in South Carolina, and in light of the video captured by a witness, there is no "Yes, but" crowd.
A white police officer in North Charleston, S.C., was charged with murder on Tuesday after a video surfaced showing him shooting in the back and killing an apparently unarmed black man while the man ran away.
The officer, Michael T. Slager, 33, said he had feared for his life because the man had taken his stun gun in a scuffle after a traffic stop on Saturday. A video, however, shows the officer firing eight times as the man, Walter L. Scott, 50, fled. The North Charleston mayor announced the state charges at a news conference Tuesday evening.
According to the information currently available, Slager pulled Scott over on Saturday morning over a broken taillight. We can't say with confidence exactly what happened after the cars pulled over, but the video shows Scott running away from the officer, who fired shots at the victim's back.
Slager's attorney told local media this week that the victim had tried to take the officer's Taser. Slager, his attorney said, felt threatened and followed all proper procedures during the deadly incident.
The emergence of a video from a bystander, however, introduced the other side of the story.
Rachel Maddow reports on how Sen. Rand Paul, dogged by a plagiarism scandal earlier in his career in the Senate, has officially launched his bid for the presidency, and whether he is up for the challenge. watch
Rachel Maddow talks with Rep. John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell, co-authors and artist of the graphic novel trilogy “March”, chronicling the civil rights struggles of Rep. Lewis. “March: Book Two” is now available for purchase. watch
Rachel Maddow examines Gandhi’s influence on the civil rights struggle in America in the 1960s as an introduction to an interview with civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., on the release of his graphic novel “March: Book Two”. watch
WARNING: Graphic video. Rachel Maddow reports on breaking news out of South Carolina, where a police officer has been charged with the murder of a man shot in the back and killed while running away – the entire incident caught on video. watch
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