President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Internal Revenue Service, Charles Rettig, has spent decades helping wealthy and famous people fight the agency’s efforts to collect taxes.
At a Thursday confirmation hearing, the criminal tax lawyer from Beverly Hills, California, will face questions from lawmakers about whether he’s qualified to run the IRS. Democrats will question whether he has the management skills to run an agency struggling to implement the biggest tax overhaul in a generation.
“I’m certainly going to be asking about that,” said Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat.
Rettig, 61, who has represented the estate of Michael Jackson and the creator of the “Girls Gone Wild” video franchise, probably will win the 51 votes needed for confirmation in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Rettig would be the first practicing tax lawyer to lead the IRS in two decades — a departure from prior commissioners who held high-level posts at private companies and regulatory agencies. He’d go from running a law firm with 12 attorneys to a perennially despised and underfunded bureaucracy with nearly 77,000 employees.
Even some Republicans have concerns. Rob Portman of Ohio said after Rettig’s name became public in January that “you’ve got to have a manager, because it’s a huge service organization.” He added that Rettig’s career as a tax litigator is “good as long as he has management skills.”
Rettig declined to comment. If confirmed, he would serve the remainder of a five-year term that began in November when the last commissioner left office.
The agency has been reeling from budget cuts. The current budget of $11.43 billion is less than in fiscal 2008, and the IRS pared some 15 percent of its workforce over the past five years. The enforcement staff has plunged by more than 25 percent since 2010, prompting tax lawyer Robert McKenzie of Arnstein & Lehr to tell Bloomberg in April that “it’s one of the best times to be a tax cheat in this country.”
“This agency is not beloved by this administration, and is not beloved by the public,” said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University. “They desperately need management, planning, strategic thinking.”
At a time when the IRS was cracking down on wealthy people who hid their money in offshore accounts, Rettig made his name helping wealthy individuals disclose their hidden offshore bank accounts while advocating the lightest possible penalties. In 2008, CPA Magazine called him one of the 50 best lawyers “to have in your corner when the IRS calls.”
An IRS restructuring commission in 1997 said agency leaders should be skilled managers. For decades, commissioners were primarily tax lawyers and tax accountants.