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Original Essays

Welcome to the IRS

by Richard Yancey
  1. Confessions of a Tax Collector: One Man
    $7.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "Offers fascinating insight into the most feared and loathed agency of government...All of the names were changed. And no one was innocent." Minneapolis Star Tribune

    "Downright absorbing....An excellent, eye-opening book." Booklist (Starred Review)

October 18, 2003: After twelve years, nine months and five days, my tour-of-duty was over. In a matter of hours, my manager would arrive in the office for the final, ironic act of confiscation. I sat at my desk that morning, staring at my computer screen, and none of my co-workers spoke to me. I was no longer one of them.

That afternoon I surrendered my credentials and my receipt book to my manager, a precise, no-nonsense "company man," whose political shrewdness was matched only by his technical incompetence. He was destined for great things in the Service; I was destined for oblivion. We respected but did not like each other, and our parting was strained, an awkward pall hanging over my "employee-closeout," the Service's euphemism for the final act of surrender, the last goodbye to my identity. As I walked to my car that mild, cloudless, breathtakingly beautiful fall afternoon, I touched my empty breast pocket. For almost thirteen years, I had carried my commission there, and now that commission was gone. "You will become what you do," my trainer with the Service had warned me in the beginning of my career. His words had proved prophetic, and now I wasn't a revenue officer anymore. I wasn't one of us; I was one of them.

On that following Monday, five new trainees began their careers with the IRS. I did not envy them, although, thanks to Congress, the Service is not the same beast it was when I came on-board in early 1991. The ranks of the revenue officer corps have thinned, new laws have made the collection of taxes a mind-numbing, complex task fraught with legal and ethical challenges, and the Service, like a great ship that has lost its rudder, drifts upon a sea of indecision, caught between a disgruntled workforce and a Congress hell-bent on limiting its ability to enforce the very laws it is charged with enforcing. The one constant over the years has been the public's perception of the Service as a heartless, intrusive, overbearing, unresponsive bureaucracy, at once incompetent and ruthless, all-knowing, all-powerful, and completely inept.

You will become what you do, and people will hate you for it.

A few months after my last day, I heard the story of one of the new-hires getting her hair done, not long after she came on-board.

"So, what are you up to now?" the stylist asked.

"I finally got a job," the trainee answered.

"Hey, that's great. Where?"

"The IRS."

"The what?"

"You know, the IRS. The Internal Revenue Service."

The stylist abruptly ripped the apron from the trainee, spun the chair around and pointed to the door.

"Get out."

"Excuse me?"

"Get out. Get out of my chair and get out of my shop and never come back here."

"But I can't leave now," the trainee protested. "You haven't finished my cut!"

"And I'm not going to finish it either. I want you to leave and I want you to leave now!"

The trainee left. In tears, she called her new boss, who listened sympathetically to the story and then said, "Welcome to the IRS."

Welcome to the IRS.

Concerned about employees abusing their position, the IRS had a long-standing edict barring employees from "commission-flashing," using their ID to gain unfair advantage in the private sector. For example, a revenue officer (RO) might slip his driver's license into the plastic cover for his commission and, when pulled for a traffic violation, hand the commission to the cop, who might think twice before giving a ticket when he saw where the violator worked. Just before I came on-board, the Service relaxed this prohibition and declared ROs could use their commissions as IDs, say, when cashing a check at the grocery store. Few ROs, myself included, ever used their commission in any other circumstances than in performance of their official duties. We learned, sometimes the hard way, like the hapless trainee in the cutting chair that you do not, under any circumstances, tell people where you work unless you absolutely had to.

At parties, in casual conversations, even with distant relations, you avoided revealing where you worked. If someone asked, you started with a vague answer, "Oh, I work for the government." If pressed, you might say, "I work for the Treasury Department." As most people seem ignorant of the fact the IRS is actually a part of the Treasury, sometimes this answer was satisfactory. If not, you were finally forced to admit, "I work for the IRS," at which point the conversation suffers a distinct deflation, an awkward pause. Something changes in the other's eyes, in the body language. A distance, sometimes a literal distance as the person takes a step backwards, is created. There is now something between you, a shadow, a stench of something rotten, shameful, an admission of something unseemly, a confession without the benefit of sacrament.

You are not one of us; you are one of them.

Although the IRS touches nearly all our lives, our lives rarely intersect with the lives of those inside the Service. The astounding statistic is over ninety percent of those required to file and pay taxes do file and pay their taxes. Thus, a very small percentage of Americans ever comes in contact with an employee of the IRS, much less someone like me, a field officer, the man who comes to your door demanding your money or else. Stereotypes flourish in at atmosphere of ignorance and vivid imagination, of jack-booted thugs appearing at your door with dark, glittering eyewear and guns concealed in their jackets. In reality, the odds are the RO at your door has as much adrenaline pumping and imagination working overtime as you, if not more. We are more afraid than you are. We are doubly afraid, because we fear you and we fear the organization for which we labor. Our jobs depend on "resolving" your case. Awards and promotions are on the line. You won't know when we're coming. And when we arrive, no one knows what might happen. "Never enter a taxpayer's kitchen," one training manual cautioned us. "A kitchen usually has knives and other implements which may be used as weapons."

I walked away from the IRS in the fall of 2003, but the Service's life and mine will be forever intertwined. I met my wife at the IRS and, with the publication of my memoir, I will always be remembered by some as "that tax collector guy."

For almost thirteen years, so much of my identity was connected to my work. Now that work is finished, and at times I feel as if I'm lugging around a corpse, the part of me that was Revenue Officer Rick Yancey. I will never regret working for the agency. I found redemption there, a sense of belonging, and a soul mate. I may have fallen in love with the power and control my job gave me, but I was redeemed in the end by the power of love. My biggest regret, perhaps, is not saying, "I work for the Internal Revenue Service, and I'm damn proud of it," when I had the opportunity. That's what the trainee should have said to the angry hairdresser.

After all, we are part of you. spacer

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