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Right takes aim at the tax police, threatening infrastructure deal

President Biden wants to pay for infrastructure by strengthening the IRS, rather than raising taxes. For the right, this won't do.

From the start of the bipartisan infrastructure talks, congressional Republicans have prioritized one goal above every other consideration: Donald Trump's tax breaks for the wealthy must be shielded at all costs. GOP lawmakers were open to some kind of infrastructure deal, just so long as the party's 2017 tax plan remains entirely intact.

President Joe Biden, desperate to find a compromise, ultimately agreed and presented an alternative source of revenue: Congress could simply bolster the Internal Revenue Service, enforce existing tax laws, and raise billions without touching tax rates. A group of Senate Republicans eventually agreed, and a deal came together.

As the Washington Post reported overnight, many on the right have decided this simply will not do: leading, well-funded conservative groups are "mobilizing against" the IRS plan.

Among the conservative groups spearheading the opposition are the Committee to Unleash Prosperity, FreedomWorks, the Conservative Action Project, and the Leadership Institute. They are preparing a letter that warns Republicans should not negotiate with the White House unless they agree to "no additional funding for the Internal Revenue Service." The letter, obtained by The Washington Post ahead of its release, is expected to gain support from at least a dozen other conservative groups this week, with plans to send it soon to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other Senate GOP leaders.

This isn't coming out of nowhere. It was nearly two months ago when Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) started railing against the IRS plan. A couple of weeks later, conservative groups started airing attack ads, condemning the idea of improved enforcement of tax law.

By late June, Senate Republicans opposed to the bipartisan compromise were focusing most of their attention on targeting the IRS provision of the agreement. Now, the push is clearly intensifying.

Circling back to our earlier coverage, the pushback from the right is largely incoherent. The IRS has been gradually undermined for years, which in turn has made it far more difficult for the agency to be aggressive in pursuing tax cheats, which in turn has meant less revenue for policy priorities. Investing more in the service would almost certainly mean a lot more money for the treasury, without raising taxes on anyone -- which, again, is what Republicans said was their top priority.

As Catherine Rampell explained in a recent column, "How do you raise tax revenue without raising taxes? By increasing enforcement of existing tax law and making sure every penny already owed gets paid."

By some measures, strengthening the IRS could generate an additional $700 billion in tax revenue over the next decade, simply by enforcing the laws already on the books. For the "law and order" party, this shouldn't be too heavy a lift.

But the right is going after the idea with a vengeance anyway, effectively saying they want to defund the tax police. Many on the right would have Americans believe tax cheats aren't a problem, but efforts to catch tax cheats are a problem.

The conservatives' motivations remain an open question. Perhaps the right simply hates the IRS reflexively. Maybe some conservatives are concerned in a general sense about the government having more resources for domestic priorities going forward. It's also entirely possible that some on the right simply want to derail the bipartisan infrastructure deal and see this as a convenient way to kill the agreement.

Whatever's driving this, the anti-IRS push does not deserve to be taken seriously.