Given the political chaos that has dominated Washington, D.C., these past two weeks, it’s possible you missed the nomination hearing for Marjorie Rollinson, President Biden’s pick for IRS Chief Counsel. The role, which has been vacant since Biden took office, has remarkable power over the creation and enforcement of IRS rules.
During questioning by the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) raised the important issue of taxpayer and donor privacy given recent and numerous examples of data leaks and mismanagement at the agency. She further requested a written accounting of the erosion of taxpayer privacy over the past few years, and asked Rollinson:
“There have been some pretty high-profile data breaches [at the IRS], ProPublica, etc., and the GAO has found numerous instances of willful misuse of information and unlawful, unauthorized access to information by [IRS] employees. … Have you reviewed the deficiencies and what are your thoughts?”
To her credit, Rollinson agreed that public trust in the IRS needs to be restored.
“I think it’s astounding to people that they have to submit this information to the IRS, they’re required to do this, and then they find out that there are these data breaches. …People need to know that their information is going to be private. That their name, their address, their Social Security number, their income, their tax filing is not going to be made public.”
The ProPublica leak referenced by Blackburn involved a 2021 breach in IRS records resulting in the confidential tax returns of many Americans being made public. That followed a notable breach of donor privacy in 2013, when the personal donor information of a nonprofit organization was leaked. More recently, the IRS inadvertently released the private information of about 120,000 taxpayers. Personal data was visible on the IRS website for a year before it was identified and taken down.
But IRS privacy breaches are about more than just tax returns. Blackburn was voicing a concern felt by many Americans: Our culture has been overtaken by politics and anyone who holds a minority opinion can become a target, including by the agency.
The IRS not only collects individual data but the personal details of nonprofit donors. In the not-too-distant past, the IRS unjustly scrutinized conservative groups who applied for tax-exempt status for their views and values.
Given the current state of leadership in D.C., and with trust in government institutions at record lows, it is refreshing that some in Congress are still interested in protecting our First Amendment rights and performing their vital oversight role.