"Abolish the IRS" is a popular Republican refrain, getting time on the campaign trail and promotion from the Republican National Committee. But don't take the catch phrase literally.
Sen. Marco Rubio, the Floridian who aims to be the party standard-bearer in the 2016 presidential contest, effectively conceded Wednesday there's a bit of hyperbole involved.
Rubio's partner on a tax code overhaul proposal, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said what conservatives really want is a significantly simpler tax code that would dial back the kind of power the IRS has accumulated.
"The power of the IRS is directly related to the complexity of the tax code. The more complexity we build into the tax code, the more power we give government to collect taxes or administer laws, the more powerful all bureaucratic agencies become, especially the Internal Revenue Service," Rubio said during a tax day event at the Heritage Foundation. "Obamacare has forces the IRS to add additional employees just to enforce that law."
"Love the idea of abolishing the IRS. Whenever we talk about that, a lot of what we're referring to is the complexity of the tax code and the corresponding discretion that we give the IRS along with that complexity," Lee said, recalling a story of a gentleman who testified at a Joint Economic Committee hearing who, despite having written a dissertation about the U.S. tax code, did not complete his own tax return.
Lee also weighed in on conservative hopes for a single-rate flat tax, rather than the two-tiered system in the proposal he has drafted with Rubio.
"If we were starting from scratch, I think that would make an enormous amount of sense. But we do however have to start with the system that we have, rather than the system that might have been had we followed a different course in decades past," Lee said. "I can't find an effective way to move us to a single-rate system that protects America's middle class."
The two senators were well received by the generally conservative audience, and former Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who now runs the Heritage Foundation, said Lee and Rubio were his favorite kind of senators for challenging the establishment in their 2010 races.
Still, the senators were asked to respond to criticism, including about the use of tax credits that are viewed as expenditures by some conservatives. While Rubio and Lee would jettison most credits and deductions, their plan includes an expansion of the child tax credit relative to what's available under current law.
Rubio said the proposal represents where conservatism needs to be in the new century, saying that while he loved Ronald Reagan and the 1980s (including the Miami Dolphins in the Super Bowl), times have changed.
"We need to recognize that in the 21st century, families face expenses and challenges that weren't there in the 20th. My family made it to the middle class as a bartender and as a maid. It would be very difficult for them to do that in the ... 21st century because of what those jobs paid. Eventually my father would have had to become an electrician or a welder," Rubio said. "My mother would have had to become a dental hygienist or a paralegal in order to live comparable lifestyles from what they have in the 1980s."
In any event, the aspirations for an America without an IRS will remain a theme for Republicans.
"Instead of a tax code that crushes innovation and inflicts burdens on families struggling to make ends met, imagine a simple, flat tax that lets Americans fill out their taxes on a postcard. Imagine a tax code that is simple enough to abolish the IRS," Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, one of Rubio's 2016 rivals, said in a statement Wednesday.
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