Republican politicians are under increasing pressure to speak out to persuade COVID-19 vaccine skeptics to roll up their sleeves and take the shots as a new, more contagious variant sends caseloads soaring. But after months of ignoring — and, in some cases, stoking — misinformation about the virus, experts warn it may be too late to change the minds of many who are refusing.
In recent news conferences and statements, some prominent Republicans have been imploring their constituents to lay lingering doubts aside. In Washington, the so-called Doctors Caucus gathered at the Capitol for an event to combat vaccine hesitancy. And in Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis this week pointed to data showing the vast majority of hospitalized COVID-19 patients hadn’t received shots.
“These vaccines are saving lives,” said DeSantis, who recently began selling campaign merchandise mocking masks and medical experts.
The outreach comes as COVID-19 cases have nearly tripled in the U.S. over the last two weeks, driven by the explosion of the new delta variant, especially in pockets of the country where vaccination rates are low. Public health officials believe the variant is at least twice as contagious as the original version, but the shots appear to offer robust protection against serious illness for most people.
Indeed, nearly all COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. are now people who haven’t been vaccinated. Nonetheless, just 56.2% of Americans have received at least one vaccine dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Overall, only 51% of Republicans said in mid-June that they had received at least one vaccine dose, versus 83% of Democrats, according to an AP-NORC poll. And many appeared to have made up their minds. Forty-six percent of those who had not been vaccinated said they definitely would not. Among Republicans, even more — 53% — said they definitely wouldn’t; just 12% said they were planning to.
“I think they’ve finally realized that if their people aren’t vaccinated, they’re going to get sick, and if their people aren’t vaccinated, they’re going to get blamed for COVID outbreaks in the future,” said GOP pollster Frank Luntz who has been working with the Biden administration and public health experts to craft effective messaging to bring the vaccine hesitant off the fence.
But Luntz, who conducted another focus group Wednesday evening with vaccine holdouts, said there has been a discernible shift in recent weeks as skepticism has calcified into hardened refusal.
“The hesitation has transformed into opposition. And once you are opposed, it is very hard to change that position. And that’s what’s happening right now,” he said.
For months now, many conservative lawmakers and pundits have been actively stoking vaccine hesitancy, refusing to take the shots themselves or downplaying the severity of the virus. Republican governors have signed bills protecting the unvaccinated from having to disclose their status and tried to roll back mask mandates. And on social media, disinformation has run rampant, leading President Joe Biden to claim platforms like Facebook were “killing people” — a claim he later walked back.
At a recent conservative gathering, attendees cheered the news that the Biden administration was falling short of its vaccination goals. Invoking the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., warned, the government: “Don’t come knocking on my door with your Fauci Ouchie! You leave us the hell alone.”
Others, including former President Donald Trump, have repeatedly defended those who have chosen not to get vaccinated, stressing that the decision is a personal choice. Instead, they have pointed fingers at Democrats, suggesting they are to blame for the distrust.
“People are refusing to take the Vaccine because they don’t trust (Biden’s) Administration, they don’t trust the Election results, and they certainly don’t trust the Fake News,” Trump said in a recent statement.
But there were signs that messaging was changing this week, as conservative leaders advocated for the shots. On Fox News, host Sean Hannity implored his viewers to “please take COVID seriously,” saying, “Enough people have died.” Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley on Twitter encouraged “ALL eligible Iowans/Americans to get vaccinated.”
“The Delta variant scares me so I hope those that haven’t been vaccinated will reconsider,” he wrote.
Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise the House Republican whip, distributed pictures of himself receiving his first dose of the vaccine last weekend after months of holding out.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, a polio survivor who has consistently advocated on behalf of the COVID-19 shots, this week urged the unvaccinated to ignore “all these other voices that are giving demonstrably bad advice.”
But the news conference convened by House GOP leaders on Thursday highlighted Republicans’ competing messages on the virus.
Initially billed as an event where Republican doctors in Congress would address the rapidly spreading delta variant, the group instead spent most of its time railing against China and making unverified claims that the coronavirus came from a lab leak in Wuhan, a theory initially popular in far-right circles but now being seriously considered by scientists. They also attacked Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Biden administration, for not doing more to get to the bottom of the lab leak theory.
“The question is, Why are Democrats stonewalling our efforts to uncover the origins of the COVID virus?” said New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, the No. 3 Republican in the House.
Eric Ward, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center who studies extremism, blamed vaccine reluctance on “nearly a year-and-a-half of right-wing rage machine rhetoric.”
“Even conservative leaders now are having a hard time figuring out how to rein in what had primarily been a propaganda campaign, and they are now realizing their constituencies are particularly vulnerable,” he said.
While some Republicans may be using strong words to promote the vaccine, few are proposing new measures to urge vaccination, such as incentives, public information campaigns or more aggressive outreach.
In New Hampshire, where shots have slowed to about 1,000 per week, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu said Thursday that there are no immediate plans to launch new initiatives.
“Right now, it’s folks’ individual responsibility. If someone hasn’t been vaccinated at this point, they’ve made that conscious decision not to,” he said. “The government’s job is to provide that open door. If you want the vaccine, here it is, nice and easy. If you need more information, here it is. So you have every tool in the toolbox available to you and your family to make that decision.”
Other Republican continue to peddle falsehoods.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., was suspended from posting on Twitter for 12 hours earlier this week after spreading disinformation about vaccine-related deaths. And Charlie Kirk, the founder of Turning Point USA, a popular youth conservative advocacy group that last weekend hosted a conference that drew former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and numerous members of Congress, suggested without evidence on his podcast that up to 1.2 million could have died after getting the COVID-19 vaccine.
In his focus groups, Luntz said that many skeptics have struggled to assess the veracity of the things they read and hear.
“There is so much misinformation out there, and they can’t tell the difference between what is accurate and what is fake,” he said. “So it makes it virtually impossible to communicate when they don’t know what to believe.”
Associated Press writers Emily Swanson, Holly Ramer and Kevin Freking contributed to this report.
Biden scrambles to limit damage to credibility from Afghanistan
When President Joe Biden appeared in the White House East Room on Jul 8 to stress that the US pullout from Afghanistan was proceeding apace, he declared that a Taliban takeover of the country was not inevitable.
Five weeks later, the Taliban is in charge, scenes of chaos at the Kabul airport from the evacuation of Americans and US-aligned Afghan citizens has transfixed the world, and Biden is scrambling to defend himself from a series of miscalculations that have damaged US credibility.
While insisting that “the buck stops with me”, Biden has doled out blame to others over America’s humiliating end to the 20-year involvement in Afghanistan that included missteps by four administrations – two Republican and two Democratic.
He has assailed the Afghan military for refusing to fight, denounced the now-ousted Afghan government and declared he inherited a bad withdrawal agreement from his Republican predecessor Donald Trump.
“I made a commitment to the American people when I ran for President that I would bring America’s military involvement in Afghanistan to an end. And while it’s been hard and messy – and yes, far from perfect – I’ve honoured that commitment,” Biden said in a speech on Monday (Aug 16).
Biden came to office promoting himself as an international statesman with a steady hand on the tiller after Trump’s four storm-tossed years in office.
He quickly rejoined international agreements abandoned by Trump and sought to rejuvenate traditional alliances that Trump had spurned.
But his first big international challenge is generating an intense political backlash as Democrats and Republicans alike raise questions about his strategy.
A prediction by US intelligence that the Taliban could be held off for three months following US withdrawal proved to be wrong. US military commanders who sought a more deliberate approach to the withdrawal were dismissed.
Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan took the White House podium on Tuesday to offer a broad defence of Biden’s actions. He said that signalling support for the Afghan government “was a considered judgment” that did not save it, however.
“When you conclude 20 years of military action in a civil war in another country, with the impacts of 20 years of decisions that have piled up, you have to make a lot of hard calls. None with clean outcomes,” Sullivan said.
CALLS FOR INVESTIGATIONS
Members of the US Congress, increasingly frustrated with events in Afghanistan, want to investigate what went wrong.
Senator Mark Warner, the Democratic Intelligence Committee chairman, had said on Monday he intended to work with other committees “to ask tough but necessary questions” about why the United States was not better prepared for the collapse of the Afghan government.
Republicans continued their harsh criticism of Biden’s policies.
“The security and humanitarian crisis now unfolding in Afghanistan could have been avoided if you had done any planning,” Republicans on the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee said in a letter to the White House on Tuesday.
The crisis appears to have taken a toll. Biden’s approval rating dropped by 7 percentage points and hit its lowest level – 46 per cent – since he took office in January, a Reuters-Ipsos poll conducted on Monday found.
Biden, managing the crisis from the presidential retreat of Camp David in Maryland’s Catoctin mountains, went several days without talking to any foreign leaders about Afghanistan. He spoke to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday.
“The prime minister stressed the importance of not losing the gains made in Afghanistan over the last 20 years, or protecting ourselves against any emerging threat from terrorism and of continuing to support the people of Afghanistan,” said a Downing Street spokesman.
Former President George W Bush, who began the “war on terror” in Afghanistan in response to the Sep 11, 2001, attacks and started a second war in Iraq in 2003, sounded a note of regret in a statement issued late on Monday with his wife, Laura Bush.
“Our hearts are heavy for both the Afghan people who have suffered so much and for the Americans and NATO allies who have sacrificed so much,” they said. “The Afghans now at greatest risk are the same ones who have been on the forefront of progress inside their nation.”
Sullivan, however, argued on Tuesday that while the images from the airport were “heartbreaking”, Biden “had to think about the human costs of the alternative path as well, which was to stay in the middle of a civil conflict in Afghanistan”. REUTERS
Biden Team Surprised By Rapid Taliban Takeover In Afghanistan
The Taliban executed a nearly complete takeover of Afghanistan, taking President Joe Biden and top officials by surprise.
President Joe Biden and other top U.S. officials were stunned on Sunday by the pace of the Taliban’s nearly complete takeover of Afghanistan, as the planned withdrawal of American forces urgently became a mission to ensure a safe evacuation.
The speed of the Afghan government’s collapse and the ensuing chaos posed the most serious test of Biden as commander in chief, and he was the subject of withering criticism from Republicans who said that he had failed.
Biden campaigned as a seasoned expert in international relations and has spent months downplaying the prospect of an ascendant Taliban while arguing that Americans of all political persuasions have tired of a 20-year war, a conflict that demonstrated the limits of money and military might to force a Western-style democracy on a society not ready or willing to embrace it.
By Sunday, though, leading figures in the administration acknowledged they were caught off guard with the utter speed of the collapse of Afghan security forces. The challenge of that effort became clear after reports of sporadic gunfire at the Kabul airport prompted Americans to shelter as they awaited flights to safety.
“We’ve seen that that force has been unable to defend the country, and that has happened more quickly than we anticipated,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN, referring to the Afghan military.
The turmoil in Afghanistan resets the focus in an unwelcome way for a president who has largely focused on a domestic agenda that includes emerging from the pandemic, winning congressional approval for trillions of dollars in infrastructure spending and protecting voting rights.
Biden remained at Camp David on Sunday, receiving regular briefings on Afghanistan and holding secure video conference calls with members of his national security team, according to senior White House officials. The next several days could be critical in determining whether the U.S. is able to regain some level of control over the situation.
Discussions were underway for Biden to speak publicly, according to two senior administration officials who requested anonymity to discuss internal conversations. Biden, who is scheduled to remain at Camp David through Wednesday, is expected to return to the White House if he decides to deliver an address.
Biden is the fourth U.S. president to confront challenges in Afghanistan and has insisted he wouldn’t hand America’s longest war to his successor. But the president will likely have to explain how security in Afghanistan unraveled so quickly, especially since he and others in the administration have insisted it wouldn’t happen.
“The jury is still out, but the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely,” Biden said on July 8.
As recently as last week, Biden publicly expressed hope that Afghan forces could develop the will to defend their country. But privately, administration officials warned that the military was crumbling, prompting Biden on Thursday to order thousands of American troops into the region to speed up evacuation plans.
One official said Biden was more sanguine on projections for the Afghan fighters to hold off the Taliban in part to prevent a further erosion in morale among their force. It was ultimately for naught.
Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump also yearned to leave Afghanistan, but ultimately stood down in the face of resistance from military leaders and other political concerns. Biden, on the other hand, has been steadfast in his refusal to change the Aug. 31 deadline, in part because of his belief that the American public is on his side.
A late July ABC News/Ipsos poll, for instance, showed 55% of Americans approving of Biden’s handling of the troop withdrawal.
Most Republicans have not pushed Biden to keep troops in Afghanistan over the long term and they also supported Trump’s own push to exit the country. Still, some in the GOP are stepping up their critique of Biden’s withdrawal strategy and said images from Sunday of American helicopters circling the U.S. Embassy in Kabul evoked the humiliating departure of U.S. personnel from Vietnam.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell deemed the scenes of withdrawal as “the embarrassment of a superpower laid low.”
Meanwhile, U.S. officials are increasingly concerned about the potential for the rise in terrorist threats against the U.S. as the situation in Afghanistan devolves, according to a person familiar with the matter who requested anonymity to discuss a sensitive security matter.
Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told senators on a briefing call Sunday that U.S. officials are expected to alter their earlier assessments about the pace of terrorist groups reconstituting in Afghanistan, the person said. Based on the evolving situation, officials believe terror groups like al-Qaida may be able to grow much faster than expected.
The officials on the call told senators that the U.S. intelligence community is currently working on forming a new timeline based on the evolving threats.
Still, there were no additional steps planned beyond the troop deployment Biden ordered to assist in the evacuations. Senior administration officials believe the U.S. will be able to maintain security at the Kabul airport long enough to extricate Americans and their allies, but the fate of those unable to get to the airport was far from certain.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who has backed the Biden administration’s strategy, said in an interview that “the speed is a surprise” but would not characterize the situation as an intelligence failure. He said it has long been known that Afghanistan would fall to the Taliban if the United States pulled out.
“Given how much we have invested in the Afghan army, it’s not ridiculous for analysts to believe that they’d be able to put up a fight for more than a few days,” Murphy said. “You want to believe that trillions of dollars and 20 years of investment adds up to something, even if it doesn’t add up for the ability to defend the country in the long run.”
In the upper ranks of Biden’s staff, the rapid collapse in Afghanistan only confirmed the decision to leave: If the meltdown of the Afghan forces would come so quickly after nearly two decades of American presence, another six months or a year or two or more would not have changed anything.
Biden has argued for more than a decade that Afghanistan was a kind of purgatory for the United States. He found it to be corrupt, addicted to America’s largesse and an unreliable partner that should be made to fend for itself. His goal was to protect Americans from terrorist attacks, not building a country.
As vice president, he argued privately against Obama’s surge of 30,000 troops into Afghanistan in a bid to stabilize the country so that the United States and its allies could then pull back their forces.
As president, Biden said in July that he made the decision to withdraw with “clear eyes” after receiving daily battlefield updates. His judgment was that Afghanistan would be divided in a peace agreement with the Taliban, rather than falling all at once.
While Biden has prided himself on delivering plain truths to the American public, his bullish assessment of the situation just a month ago could come back to haunt him.
“There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of a embassy in the — of the United States from Afghanistan,” he said in July. “The likelihood there’s going to be one unified government in Afghanistan controlling the whole country is highly unlikely.” AP
Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.
‘Gaslighting’ Kevin McCarthy Raked Over The Coals In GOP Group’s Damning New Ad
The Republican Accountability Project explains why the top House Republican and 1950s Sen. Joseph McCarthy “aren’t so different.”
A conservative group draws damning comparisons between House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and the late Joseph McCarthy, the GOP senator who fueled anti-communist fears in the 1950s, in its new ad.
Joseph McCarthy “deceived America, pushing a lie that our government was being taken over by communist spies,” says the voiceover of the 60-second video — titled “The New McCarthyism” — that was released by the Republican Accountability Project on Friday.
“He gaslit America to advance his own political career,” it continues. “Now McCarthyism is back, with a new McCarthy: Kevin McCarthy. Just like Joe, Kevin McCarthy is gaslighting Americans.”
The narrator then calls out current top House Republican Kevin McCarthy, a staunch defender of former President Donald Trump, for protecting “white nationalists, anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists while he whitewashes Jan. 6 all to advance his political power.”
“Joe McCarthy and Kevin aren’t so different,” the group, which is part of the anti-Trump Defending Democracy Together organization, wrote on YouTube.
Over the last eight months, the group has run multiple ads against Trump’s enablers and other Republicans who have downplayed the deadly Capitol riot — and continues to maintain an online “Hall of Shame” of the Trump-adoring Republicans in Congress who “cannot be trusted with power.” HuffPost
Joe Biden’s credibility has been shredded in Afghanistan
If Donald Trump were presiding over the debacle in Afghanistan, the US foreign policy establishment would be loudly condemning the irresponsibility and immorality of American strategy. Since it is Joe Biden in the White House there is instead, largely, an embarrassed silence. It is true that Trump set the US on the path out of Afghanistan and began the delusional peace talks with the Taliban that have gone nowhere. But rather than reverse the withdrawal of troops, Biden accelerated it.
The horrific results are unfolding on the ground in Afghanistan, as the Taliban take city after city. The final collapse of the government looks inevitable. It may come just in time for the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that originally led to the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. Earlier this week, Biden was channelling Edith Piaf, claiming he had no regrets about pulling the rug out from under the Afghan government.
If Donald Trump were presiding over the debacle in Afghanistan, the US foreign policy establishment would be loudly condemning the irresponsibility and immorality of American strategy. Since it is Joe Biden in the White House there is instead, largely, an embarrassed silence.
It is true that Trump set the US on the path out of Afghanistan and began the delusional peace talks with the Taliban that have gone nowhere. But rather than reverse the withdrawal of troops, Biden accelerated it.
The horrific results are unfolding on the ground in Afghanistan, as the Taliban take city after city. The final collapse of the government looks inevitable. It may come just in time for the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that originally led to the US-led invasion of Afghanistan.
Earlier this week, Biden was channelling Edith Piaf, claiming he had no regrets about pulling the rug out from under the Afghan government. Last month, the president was still insisting that the “likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely”. Who knows what he will be saying next month? And, frankly, who cares? On Afghanistan, Biden’s credibility is now shot.
The broader strategic question is what the unfolding disaster in Afghanistan will do for US credibility around the world. Discussing the situation there as a question of high global politics feels distasteful while a tragedy unfolds on the ground. But, beyond simple war-weariness, Biden’s principal justification for the Afghan withdrawal was strategic. In recent remarks, he argued that the US cannot “remain tethered” to policies created in response “to a world as it was 20 years ago. We need to meet the threats where they are today.” The first threat that Biden identified was “the strategic competition with China”.
So how does America’s defeat in Afghanistan — in reality, a defeat for the entire western alliance — play into the growing rivalry between Washington and Beijing?
The US failure makes it much harder for Biden to push his core message that “America is back”. By contrast, it fits perfectly with two key messages pushed by the Chinese (and Russian) governments. First, that US power is in decline. Second, that American security guarantees cannot be relied upon.
If the US will not commit to a fight against the Taliban, there will be a question mark over whether America would really be willing to go to war with China or Russia. Yet America’s global network of alliances is based on the idea that, in the last resort, US troops would indeed be deployed to defend their allies in Asia, Europe and elsewhere.
China is already the dominant economic power in east Asia. But most Asian democracies look to the US as their main security partner. So it is very helpful to Beijing if Washington’s credibility is undermined. Of course, the situations and stakes in Taiwan or the South China Sea are different from those in Afghanistan. But events there will still resonate around the world.
The direct consequences for Beijing of US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which borders China, will be less welcome. The Chinese regime has adopted policies of mass internment and repression in Muslim-majority Xinjiang. The idea of the Uyghurs receiving support from a fundamentalist Taliban government will raise concerns in Beijing. So will the potential threat of terrorist bases in Afghanistan.
In time, China might face a classical superpower’s dilemma. Is it better to intervene militarily in turbulent Afghanistan, or to leave the country to its own devices? As Andrew Small of the European Council on Foreign Relations points out, Chinese commentary on Afghanistan is already replete with references to the country as the “graveyard of empires”.
In Washington, the parallel that will be uppermost in the minds of policymakers is Vietnam. There are already reports that America is trying to persuade the Taliban not to storm the US embassy in Kabul in order to avoid a repetition of the scenes when Saigon fell in 1975. Last month, Biden insisted that the “Taliban is not the North Vietnamese army. They’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability.” He may come to regret those words.
The Americans know, however, that if they decide to pull out the last remnants of the US presence in Kabul, they will be in effect signing the death warrant of the Afghan government. The collapse in morale which has already led to successive defeats for the Afghan army across the country would become irreversible. But, in truth, the situation already looks all but irrecoverable.
Unlike the Afghan government, however, the US administration has a few straws of hope to cling to. The end of the Vietnam war was indeed a debacle. Many questioned American power in its aftermath. But within fourteen years of the fall of Saigon, the cold war was over, and the west had won.
In the end, the struggle between the American and Soviet systems turned not on events in Vietnam but on the relative strengths of the two countries’ domestic economies and political systems. The current rivalry between the US and China may be determined in the same way. But that abstract thought is little comfort to the beleaguered people of Afghanistan. FT
Biden and Nancy come to Gavin Newsom’s rescue
Biden and Nancy come to rescue Gavin Newsom: President and prominent Democrats cast support behind California Governor and call on residents to vote for next month’s scallop.
President Joe Biden And Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi Vowed to cast their weight behind maintaining democracy California Governor Gavin Newsom, who is facing a call election next month, takes office.
‘Gov. Newsom is leading California through an unprecedented crisis-he’s an important partner in fighting pandemics and helping build our economy better, “Biden tweeted Thursday night. “In order to continue his work, registered voters should vote against the recall by 9/14 and keep California moving forward.”
Pelosi, a fellow Californian, also chimed Thursday about the recall, saying, “We respect it, but we don’t like it. We’ll beat it.” According to Fox News.
California Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom faces a recall election on September 14, but is expected to receive support from prominent Democrats.
The Democratic Party of California has voted “no” to the first question and has instructed voters to leave the second question blank.
If more than 50% of the voters vote “yes” to the first question, the highest voter will be the governor.
This happened in 2003 when Democratic Governor Gray Davis was recalled to 55% of voters and opened the door to action movie star Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
This time, there are 46 replacement candidates on the ballot.
President Joe Biden sent a tweet in support of Newsom on Thursday night
There is no facility where the Democrats oppose Newsom, but like Schwarzenegger, reality television star Caitlyn Jenner, a former Olympic athlete and transgender activist, is racing as a Republican. increase.
Larry Elder, the host of the conservative talk show, is also participating in the vote.
More traditional Republicans such as former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, former governor candidate John Cox (losing to Newsom in 2018), state legislator Kevin Kylie, and former Congressman Doug Ose are also Newsom. I am undertaking.
Newsom had political problems with the numerous restrictions he had enacted to combat the coronavirus. At the same time, the governor found him attending a birthday party at the Tony French Laundry Restaurant in Napa Valley while advising Californians to stay home.
The judge also granted an extension to bring back supporters, giving them more time to collect their signatures. This is how Newsum is currently participating in the vote.
Politico reported that the White House is considering sending Vice President Biden or Kamala Harris to the trail to protect Newsom. Ballots by mail will be shipped from August 16th.
The IRS has a big opportunity to fix the way Americans file taxes
The next big Joe Biden spending package is coming: This week, the Senate narrowly passed, on party lines, a budget resolution designed to enable as much as $3.5 trillion in new spending over 10 years.
Congressional Democrats say the spending package will be paid for, and they have been clear about one of the main sources of funding: the IRS. The Biden administration has proposed an $80 billion funding boost to the agency over 10 years as part of its “American Families Plan,” an increase of more than 50 percent to the agency’s normal budget. The Biden team estimates that could raise nearly $700 billion over that same period, paying for itself nine times over. That could fund a huge number of other Biden initiatives, from an enhanced child tax credit to paid family and medical leave to child care assistance.
But it could also pay for an improvement to the tax system itself. While no one in the administration or Congress seems to be making much noise about this, the IRS funding plan could be a golden opportunity to force the agency to join the rest of the world in offering a free, easy-to-use service that all Americans can use to file their taxes.
The timing is auspicious for such an endeavor. As you may know, if you make $72,000 or less, you’re eligible for a free return through the IRS Free File program, including software provided by Intuit, the company that operates TurboTax. If you make more, you’re eligible for Free File Fillable Forms, an Intuit product.
That system is now falling apart. Intuit is pulling out of its arrangement with the US government, which could mean the end of the only online tax filing systems available free of charge to all Americans.
But this collapse may present an opportunity.
For decades, the tax prep industry has succeeded in preventing the IRS from doing what the tax authority in just about every other country does: providing a free, effective, easy-to-use online service where all taxpayers can file their taxes. But it’s doing so just as the Biden administration is attempting to pour billions in new funding into the IRS.
The end of Free File and the conversations in Congress around IRS funding could make this the perfect moment to dismantle our broken tax filing system and build something better.
How to file your taxes for free, explained
Right now, if you’re an American who wants to file your taxes without paying any additional fees to a private company or preparer, you have three options (besides limited “simple return” promotions by the big companies).
You can role-play as someone living in the 1970s and print out the 1040 tax form, along with any associated schedules or forms for tax credits and deductions for which you may be eligible, and compute it all by hand, meticulously collating physical copies of your W-2 and 1099 income statements and any other documentation you need.
Your second option is only slightly less tedious: You can use Free File Fillable Forms, a free service implemented by Intuit that simply copies the physical IRS tax forms and makes them “fillable” so you can type in the numbers. It’ll even do some basic math for you. But you still have to manually enter everything, you can’t import PDFs of your W-2 or other statements, and it’s easy to get confused about exactly which forms you’re expected or required to fill out. I’m an IRS-certified tax preparer, and I gave up using the website this year out of frustration.
Your final option is only available if you make $72,000 a year or less. In that case, you’re eligible for a free return on private tax software through the IRS Free File program. But careful: You might get a ton of spam from whatever company you choose trying to upsell you and get you to pay for fancier options. One investigation found that 14 million Americans were charged by companies for Free File returns that should have cost nothing.
The IRS also funds community tax organizations that can file returns for low-income people, but I can say from experience as a volunteer tax preparer that these groups are underfunded and overworked.
This is an unacceptable state of affairs. Americans should not have to choose between these obviously inadequate and half-baked free options for tax filing and paying a private company. Paying taxes is a legal requirement, and it should be possible to easily do it for free. And it just isn’t possible right now; it’s no wonder that over 91 percent of individual returns filed in 2019 were filed through a paid preparer or a private online service. The current system almost forces you to pay for the privilege of paying your taxes.
Intuit, H&R Block, and America’s broken tax filing system
The Free File and Free File Fillable Forms systems can perhaps best be understood as a kind of peace treaty between the IRS and the private tax preparation industry, specifically Intuit and H&R Block.
For years, the government leaned on those two companies to provide free tax services to Americans in need. But the basic problem with relying on private sector companies that provide paid tax services to provide free ones is that they will always have an incentive to make the free service worse and to make the paid one more attractive. That’s been the story the past couple of decades.
In 2002, as part of a broader effort to improve government technology to take advantage of the internet, the Bush administration proposed that the IRS develop “an easy, no-cost option for taxpayers to file their tax return online.”
This, as ProPublica’s Justin Elliott and Paul Kiel reported, led to a massive lobbying push from Intuit, including a coordinated letter from Republican members of Congress demanding that the IRS not “compete” with private companies, with an implicit threat of reduced IRS funding if it did try to offer free filing.
So the IRS, hamstrung by limited funding to start its own free filing program anyway, negotiated a deal with the tax preparers: The companies would offer low-income Americans free tax prep software, and in exchange, the IRS would promise not to set up a free filing program of its own.
This is the system that has held from 2002 to the present. The IRS brags that 70 percent of Americans are eligible for Free File, but for the 2019 tax season, only 4.2 million returns out of 157.2 million total were filed through Free File, or 2.6 percent.
H&R Block and Intuit succeeded in making the program a non-entity. In 2019, Elliott and Kiel began documenting how the two companies were undermining Free File, from hiding their Free File options from Google results to tricking their clients into paying when they could file for free.
Their reporting led by the end of the year to significant changes to the Free File program. The IRS added an addendum to its deal with tax preparers. The new provisions prohibited companies from blocking Free File search results and tried to reduce deceptive marketing, and, more crucially, dropped the ban on the IRS developing its own free file option.
This, perhaps unsurprisingly, led to backlash from the tax prep industry.
Last year, H&R Block became the first preparer to leave the Free File Alliance, meaning it would no longer provide free returns to all low-income Americans through the program. Intuit followed suit this July by announcing it would pull TurboTax from the program as well.
This doesn’t entirely gut the program — other services like TaxSlayer and TaxAct are still available — but it removes the program’s two most popular service providers. Most importantly, Intuit’s withdrawal throws the future of Free File Fillable Forms, which it develops for the Free File Alliance, into question.
This chaos is particularly important for low-income people. Some of America’s most important safety net programs exist as parts of the tax code, in particular the earned income tax credit (EITC) and the child tax credit (CTC); so did the economic impact payments, better known as “stimulus checks,” last year. Having access to a free program to file taxes and access these credits is consequential for a lot of families.
But this chaos could also provide an opening for something better.
How Biden and the IRS can fix tax filing
The IRS desperately needs to put together an easier-to-use, simpler way for people to file their taxes and access benefits free of charge. Accomplishing that, of course, is easier said than done. The IRS has been underfunded for decades and does not have sufficient in-house technical expertise to build a free file system on its own.
But there are signs suggesting that the limitations keeping the IRS from enabling free filing are falling away.
First, the agency removed the ban limiting it from offering such a product in 2019. Then the Biden administration made increased funding to the agency one of its top domestic spending priorities, as well it should — funding the IRS increases tax revenue and pays for itself several times over. While the provision fell out of the bipartisan infrastructure deal over Republican opposition, it’s set to be used as a pay-for in Democrats’ $3.5 trillion spending package.
That could provide the funding necessary for the IRS to make free filing a reality — and Intuit’s withdrawal from the Free File program could provide some sense of urgency. “The problems with Free File lead me to conclude that it is time for IRS to develop the technology that will allow individuals to access our tax system with minimal burden,” Leslie Book, a professor of tax law at Villanova, told me, in a judgment that echoes many tax law experts I’ve spoken with.
In the near term, the IRS will need a stopgap measure for free tax returns next spring, especially if no provider in the Free File Alliance steps up to replace Intuit in running Free File Fillable Forms. The IRS will likely not have funding and staffing in time to set up an in-house program by then, which means that on a temporary basis it will likely have to repeat the Free File formula of relying on private preparers.
Daniel Hemel, a professor of tax and constitutional law at UChicago, has proposed a simple temporary fix: have the US government pay TaxSlayer, TaxAct, or any of the other remaining Free File companies on a per-return basis to prepare returns for taxpayers, at least low-income ones.
Hemel notes that while this isn’t the same as having the IRS do things in-house, it’s also an improvement on the Free File model, in which tax preparers aren’t compensated at all for Free File returns and thus have tremendous incentive to upsell. “Under Free File, companies have literally nothing to lose if they try to upsell & then you quit,” Hemel writes. “Now, they’d be losing out on real revenue.”
In the long run, though, there’s no reason to compensate private firms on a per-return basis. What the government could do instead is build its own free-to-use software for tax filers.
Nina Olson, who served from 2001 to 2019 as the national taxpayer advocate, a position in the IRS advocating for taxpayers and for improved customer service, has been proposing this for years, and today argues for it as executive director of the non-government Center for Taxpayer Rights.
Here’s how it would work: The IRS would start by putting out a request for proposals (RFP) for a new system to be built by private software/IT firms. That RFP could lay out a replica of today’s system, with full-featured software for low-income people and Free File Fillable Forms for others. But it could also just make the full-featured software available to everyone — and should, in my opinion.
It could also create a simplified system for people who don’t owe taxes but are owed the earned income tax credit or child tax credit, to keep the IRS updated on how many children they have and what they’re earning so they can receive their full benefits.
As part of this process, the government would likely lean heavily on some in-house technical expertise. Groups like the US Digital Service, housed in the White House, and Technology Transformation Services, a division of the General Services Administration (GSA) that provides technical assistance to federal agencies are home to software engineers and project managers who can help with designing the RFP and the procurement process.
“What Intuit’s leaving has done is created the momentum. There’s a vacuum now. The IRS is going to have to take some action. It’s an opportunity for US Digital Services etc. to see if they can be of assistance,” Olson says.
A world without tax returns
The IRS could also go a step further from just free filing and experiment with pre-filled returns, an idea that has been floating around tax policy circles for decades.
The actual work of doing your taxes mostly involves rifling through various IRS forms you get in the mail. There are W-2s listing your wages, 1099s showing miscellaneous income like from one-off gigs, etc. The main advantage of TurboTax is that it can import these forms automatically and spare you this step.
But here’s the thing about the forms: The IRS gets them, too. When Vox Media sent me a W-2 telling me how much it paid me in 2020, it sent an identical one to the IRS. When my bank sent me a 1099 telling my wife and me how much interest we earned on our savings account in 2020, it also sent one to the IRS. If I’m not itemizing deductions (like 70 percent of taxpayers), the IRS has all the information it needs to calculate my taxes, send me a filled-out return, and let me either send it right back to the IRS if I’m comfortable with their version or else do my taxes by hand if I prefer.
This isn’t a purely hypothetical proposal. Countries like Denmark, Sweden, Estonia, Chile, and Spain already offer ”pre-populated returns” to their citizens. California experimented with a version called ReadyReturn before it was shut down under pressure from H&R Block and Intuit.
Olson notes that an RFP from the IRS could demand that a free-file option enable pre-filled returns or, at the absolute least, automatically import forms that have been sent to the IRS associated with your or a family member’s Social Security number.
The steps needed from here are simple.
Congress needs to authorize more funding for the IRS. It also ideally would pass the Tax Filing Simplification Act, a proposal dating from 2017 and championed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) that would order the IRS to put together a free-filing system and to offer pre-filled returns. The act could perhaps be included in Democrats’ forthcoming budget reconciliation bill.
The hardest steps toward simplification would involve fixing the tax code itself. In 2019, Olson in her capacity as national taxpayer advocate enlisted Book and other experts to propose changes to make tax code benefits easier to access. They proposed simplifying the earned income tax credit so it was paid out without reference to how many kids a worker has, which could make it easier to pay out over the course of a year rather than at tax time. In exchange, the child tax credit would be enhanced and made bigger, which President Biden has already made steps toward.
A reform like this could make tax filing totally unnecessary for most low-income people. Eliminating breaks like the mortgage interest and charitable deductions would make returns unnecessary for most middle- and upper-middle-class people too.
But those are heavy lifts. A huge first step would be to simply fund the IRS adequately, have it pay private tax preparers to process returns for now, and have it hire a software firm to build a real free-file system with pre-filled returns. That would eliminate the tax prep industry’s stranglehold on our tax system and make the entire process vastly easier for Americans, especially low-income Americans. VOX
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