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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

A Botched Attack on IRS Budget

An ad calling for the abolishment of the IRS incorrectly claimed that the federal agency’s budget increased by $2 billion. In fact, it’s down by nearly $1 billion during President Barack Obama’s first term. To its credit, though, Americans for Fair Taxation, the group behind the ad, removed the $2 billion reference after we asked about it.

In the original ad, a narrator accuses an “out of control” IRS of “playing politics” while the words “$2 billion budget increase” appear on screen. The 30-second spot was posted to the group’s YouTube channel on June 12. On the same day, the Washington Post wrote that the anti-tax group would spend “in the mid-six-figures” to air it, beginning June 17.

No explanation or citation is provided for when the $2 billion increase was supposed to have occurred. After FactCheck.org questioned the $2 billion figure, Curtis Ellis, a spokesman for the group, said that it had made a mistake and would fix the ad. And it did.

On June 13, Americans for Fair Taxation uploaded a revised video to YouTube that replaced the words “$2 billion budget increase” on the screen with “IRS committed political sabotage,” which was the headline of a May 16 opinion article written by the chairman of the National Organization for Marriage. The opinion piece said the IRS was to blame for leaking confidential tax information about the conservative group.

Original Ad

Revised Ad

The fact is that the IRS budget has declined every year for three straight years, from $12.14 billion in fiscal year 2010 (Obama’s first budget) to $11.2 billion in the current fiscal year (which ends Sept. 30).

The president’s budget for fiscal year 2014 requests nearly $12.9 billion for the IRS. At the time of Obama’s budget proposal, the $12.9 billion represented about a $1 billion increase from the 2012 enacted level of $11.8 billion, as the budget says. Since then, however, the automatic budget cuts required by the sequester have reduced the IRS budget to $11.2 billion for this year. That’s less than the enacted funding amount of $11.5 billion for fiscal year 2009, which was the last budget under President George W. Bush.

So, Obama’s budget proposal is about $1.7 billion higher than the current level.

But the $12.9 billion for fiscal 2014 is only a request. It is by no means a guarantee that that spending level will be approved by Congress. And as this chart from the IRS Oversight Board shows, in recent years, the amounts appropriated by Congress have regularly been lower than what both the board has recommended and what the president has requested.

Source: IRS Oversight Board FY2014 IRS Budget Recommendation Special Report, May 2013
Source: IRS Oversight Board FY2014 IRS Budget Recommendation Special Report, May 2013

We don’t want to discount the fact that the ad has been revised. It isn’t often that political ad makers correct the record. Neil Newhouse, Mitt Romney’s pollster, famously said during the 2012 campaign: “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.” It’s particularly important that Americans for Fair Taxation changed the ad before it airs on TV, where it will get a wider audience. For that, the group deserves some credit — even as we both set the record straight.

— Justin Cohen, with D’Angelo Gore