Notice & Comment

The “IRS Code”

Recently, Senator Ted Cruz made headlines with his claim that the “IRS Code” contains more words than the Bible, with “not a one of them as good.” The Washington Post fact-checked that claim but in doing so, opened up another hornet’s nest. Academics across the country wrote in to take issue with the WaPo’s parroting of Cruz’s reference to the “IRS Code,” claiming that the phrase is a political device designed to steer public frustration over taxes towards the IRS and away from Congressional lawmakers.

As noted in the WaPo’s second fact-check, I don’t think the phrase “IRS Code” is inherently misleading. Yes, Congress presents the actual laws to the President for signature, but the IRS plays a fairly big role in administering the tax system. Many statutes leave discretion for the IRS to choose between, for example, interpretation A or interpretation B, and public frustration over that choice can be fairly targeted towards the agency. Some statutes don’t even operate unless the IRS issues implementing regulations, and again, I don’t see anything wrong with expressing dissatisfaction towards the IRS regarding those laws, even if they were drafted by Congress.

More generally, I think it’s perfectly appropriate to hold the executive branch to some extent accountable for the contents of our laws. Every election season, Presidents make legislation-related campaign promises, and there’s little doubt that the executive branch, through the veto power or otherwise, exercises significant influence in shaping statutes. When tax rates were lowered in 2001, for example, persons across the ideological spectrum referred to the statutory changes as the “Bush Tax Cuts,” even though Congress presented the bill for to him for signature. So I don’t think that attributing some responsibility to the executive branch for the tax laws is somehow a gambit played only by Tea Party conservatives. All of us naturally associate many laws with the President, who really is the Legislator-in-Chief.

Of course, politicians use words for political purposes, and someone who proclaims that we should “Abolish the IRS and scrap the IRS Code” either has no idea what he’s talking about or is being deliberately inflammatory. But the mere fact that a politician might make political use of a term does not make that term inherently troublesome. Otherwise, we’d have to scrap all kinds of words from our vocabulary, including “is.”

The phrase “IRS Code” strikes me as a bit sloppy, and people probably started using it by confusing it with “IRC” (the Internal Revenue Code). But, unlike my academic colleagues, I don’t feel like someone threw acid in my eyes whenever I see the phrase. I don’t think the general public should feel that way, either.