Congress will focus on IRS and TSA this week

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More money to expand the IRS and raises for TSA officers – both are on the agenda as Congress returns to Washington this week. They’re both part of the so-called infrastructure bill the Biden administration has put forth. For how some of this might play out, Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to WTOP Capitol Hill correspondent Mitchell Miller.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: And let’s talk about the IRS first. There’s debate beginning already, whether if they get all of the money that the Biden administration would like them to get, they would in fact collect all the money they would like them to collect.

Mitchell Miller: That’s right. I mean, these proposals are so huge. We’re talking more than $4 trillion from the White House that a lot of talk is, of course, how are you going to pay for it? One of the most popular ideas, of course, is going back to the IRS. This is an idea as you know, it’s had bipartisan support for many years. The IRS is not collecting enough money that they’re leaving money on the table literally, lawmakers from both parties have pointed to study after study and IRS review after IRS review that show that the agency doesn’t collect nearly as much money as it could. Democrats have suggested closing major loopholes that allow many of the wealthy and corporations not to pay any taxes, or at least very little in taxes each year. Estimates range from hundreds of billions of dollars, up to, recently, $1 trillion. The question is does the IRS have enough resources to do something like this? The agency’s budget has been cut for much of the past decade or has just held steady. IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig told Congress last month that with the modernization of computer systems and more enforcement personnel, the IRS could do a lot more to bring in more money. But we’ll have to see where this goes.

Tom Temin: All right. And then with respect to the TSA officers, that’s also a debate now because the proposal in the bill would put them into the general schedule system as other federal employees and give them raises. And I guess the argument going there is why would you put them in something that is already old fashioned and suspect?

Mitchell Miller: Right. And this is getting a lot of attention to just because of the situation that we’re in now, right? People are starting to actually think about traveling again, the TSA has put out figures that show that there’s been more air travel than there’s been really in the past year. A House Homeland Security subcommittee held a hearing last week on this. And there is general agreement among lawmakers that TSA workers are underpaid. Their salaries can start at less than $30,000, a year at some of the airports across the country, depending again, on what urban area it’s in. But lawmakers disagree on how to best fix the situation. Democrats are again backing this bill that would allow transportation security officers, as you note, to earn a salary under the general schedule and also put them under the Title 5 personnel system, which would among other things give them collective bargaining rights. But there’s still no consensus with Republicans on this. And it’s also still unclear what might happen with this legislation in the Senate. It’s generally been getting favorable response over the past few years from Democrats. But Republicans have a lot of reservations about actually putting TSO workers into the general schedule.

Tom Temin: Has anyone brought up the idea of simply paying them more under the nonschedule that they’re in now?

Mitchell Miller: Right, exactly. And that’s certainly an option that a lot of people that say why complicate all of this? We all generally agree that they are underpaid, why don’t we just raise the amount of money that they’re getting paid and put aside at least for now, some of these more complicated issues about actually how to get them into the general schedule? Of course, it’s hard to believe, but now it’s been close to 20 years, since the TSA has been in operation, obviously going into effect after 9/11.

Tom Temin: And just one final point, getting back to the IRS: There’s no lawmaker questioning the numbers that the IRS puts forward as to how much it could collect? Because I’ve read a range of studies, and yes, they do range to $1 trillion, but they also range to, hey, not that much.

Mitchell Miller: Right, there are some skeptics on Capitol Hill that say, “You know what, we’ve talked about this a lot before.” You know, it’s kind of like that idea of Pentagon spending, where people have always said, “Oh, well, there’s way too much fat and waste in the Pentagon spending, if we just crack down on, you know, the multimillion dollar tool,” that’s the latest one that gets all the attention from the inspector general or something like that, that “we could save so much money, and then we wouldn’t have to raise taxes or do these other fundraising things.” So there is a lot of questions about these numbers get thrown around a lot. And as you point out, I mean, some people have said, “Oh, we could get hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars,” and this estimate of $1 trillion actually did come from the IRS itself. The commissioner said that that could be the gap of the money that they may be leaving on the table, but it’s still very unclear about exactly how they could actually get that kind of money into the system.

Tom Temin: And that’s a 10-year estimate, too, not one year.

Mitchell Miller: Right, very good point. I mean, this is over a long period of time. So it’s not like you’re just going to all of a sudden say hey, we just cracked down on this. We’ve got $300 billion that we can put toward infrastructure.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with WTOP Capitol Hill correspondent Mitchell Miller. And let’s move on to a question about member of Congress, themselves. Are they vaccinated? What have you seen up there?

Mitchell Miller: Well, it’s really interesting, you would think that all members of Congress would be vaccinated by now since they’ve had access to vaccination for several months, early on in the pandemic in connection with not only vaccinations, but testing. A lot of lawmakers were a little bit wary of getting ahead of the public, that the perception would be that they were getting something that the public couldn’t, but really, a lot of people said it was the responsible thing to do for lawmakers to get vaccinated. So the vast majority of them have been vaccinated, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently indicated that they’re still about a quarter of the lawmakers on the Hill who are not fully vaccinated, which is really pretty remarkable when they’ve had access for several months. Now, many of them are Republicans who have declined to get vaccinated for various reasons. Pelosi noted there is really nothing that can be done to actually require lawmakers to get vaccinated. So that’s why during the recent joint address to Congress from President Biden, you still saw lawmakers wearing masks, and that is probably going to continue since, with just a few exceptions, no one really knows exactly which lawmakers specifically have not been vaccinated. Some of them have acknowledged they haven’t been vaccinated, the No. 2 Republican House Minority Whip Steve Scalise relatively recently indicated that he is going to get vaccinated, but had not. But because of this, some doctors and health advocates have said if they were to all get vaccinated, they could actually be a showing and an example to the rest of the public when there is a big gathering like this joint address to Congress that if they didn’t wear masks, they said that that would actually set a good example for the country that the vaccinations are working.

Tom Temin: Yeah, here’s where the herd looks like. Wonderful. And just a final question – the attack of Jan. 6, the issue and the event that they love to keep admiring. There’s hearings on that coming up. Is there any resolution to that whole question in the offing?

Mitchell Miller: There really isn’t. The House Administration Committee is hearing this week from inspectors general who are looking into various issues. The Capitol Police inspector general testifying today and the inspector general of the Architect of the Capitol is to testify on Wednesday. Capitol Police leadership has already come under scrutiny in an earlier inspector general’s report for not doing enough to disseminate information related to intelligence about the Jan. 6 attack. And of course, we’ve been keeping an eye on all the arrests, there have been more than 400 arrests now. Justice Department saying this is one of the largest investigations ever undertaken. But what is really interesting is the fact that right after Jan. 6, as you know, there was a lot of talk about a 9/11 type of commission that would review exactly what went wrong, try to make recommendations to say this is what has to be done so this doesn’t happen again. But that has just absolutely gotten bogged down. And of course, the culprit is politics. Democrats say that it should focus solely on the insurrection, what went into it, where was the ball drop, and what kind of recommendations can be made to protect the Capitol in the wake of that. Republicans are worried about the scope, and they think that it might just be a blame game for former President Trump. They actually also want to look at some of the protests from last summer with the Black Lives Matter protests. But even some Republicans have questioned that Liz Cheney, the No. 3 Republican at least for the moment, until she gets pushed out this week, has said that it should actually be just on Jan. 6. But the vast majority of Republicans would like it to be much broader. So as usual with these political situations, it’s kind of at a stalemate right now.

Tom Temin: No wonder they call it a merry-go-round. Mitchell Miller is Capitol Hill correspondent for WTOP. Thanks so much.

Mitchell Miller: You bet.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview at FederalNewsNetwork.com/FederalDrive. Hear the Federal Drive on your schedule. Subscribe at Apple podcasts or wherever you get your shows.

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