'Illegals Raiding the U.S. Treasury' – The Civics Lesson Therein

By David North on September 7, 2011

My colleague Jim Edwards, in a blog entitled "Illegals Raiding the U.S. Treasury" has called (appropriately) to our attention the way that illegal aliens have, apparently, robbed the U.S. Treasury of $4.2 billion, according to a report from the Treasury Department Inspector General.

They did so by claiming child tax credits to which they were not entitled. The children may or may not have been present, but the department had no right to give cash tax refunds to illegal aliens. Treasury has done nothing about it.

What I would like to add to his comments amounts to a civics lesson, something none of us were taught in school.

That lesson, absorbed in half of century of my on-again/off-again employment in county, state, and federal governments, is that government agencies rarely lift their sights from their own, narrow sets of duties, and the last thing in the world they want to do is to pay attention to some other agency's duties.

In the case of the income tax shenanigans of the illegals that Edwards discussed, the Internal Revenue Service does not want to bother itself with the legal status, or lack thereof, of those income tax filers who lack Social Security numbers and who probably are illegal aliens. That, they must think, is somebody else's problem.

This narrow focus is all too familiar to me.

When I was chair of the (very part-time) board of tax appeals in a suburban Washington jurisdiction, I remember when some corporation, claiming that the county had over-assessed its self-storage business, came before my board seeking a lower assessment, and thus a lower property tax payment.

I knew, in this case, that the corporation had, contrary to state law, failed to obtain a mandated, country-issued business license, and in my eyes, the corporation was coming to us with "dirty hands." I invited the county tax collector to testify that this was the case, and she did so.

The head county assessor, an otherwise commendable public servant, was furious with me for bringing up a non-assessment issue at the hearing. We not only denied the requested tax break, we found that the property had been under-assessed and raised the assessment to above its previous level, which was something the board could do, but did rarely. I was looking at the issue from a comprehensive, government-wide perspective; the county assessor was not.

Similarly, IRS does not want to complicate its life by enforcing some non-revenue part of the law.

One of the reasons for this is that U.S. civil servants usually work in silos; they start out life being junior consular officials, or junior IRS staffers, and stay within those silos all their working lives, and hence react the way that IRS has done in this case.

In contrast, I recall lunching with a senior immigration official in England some 20 years ago, when I was in London on a mission for the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. We got to talking about our respective careers, and I found that he was a career civil servant, on one of those Brit fast-track arrangements for the very able, and asked him what his previous assignment had been.

"Oh, six months ago I was supervising the construction of prisons in Scotland."

He was a Home Office person, and such a lateral movement among the more skilled civil servants is par for the course.

Similarly, at the cabinet and sub-cabinet level, high-flying MPs move from ministerial post to ministerial post; Treasury today, Foreign Office tomorrow.

So in the UK both elite civil servants and their political masters quickly learn about the needs of the government generally, and tend to view their obligations broadly.

Unfortunately, that rarely happens within the silos that predominate in American government.