TRACís Continuing FOIA Battle with the IRS

Since the Freedom of Information Act was approved by Congress four decades ago, history tells us that obtaining data from powerful organizations like the IRS almost always has been a long hard slog.

While this resistance to public scrutiny has been a constant, the hostility of this administration to the Freedom of Information Act has made it a good deal harder than under any previous administration.

Beginning about thirty years ago, in response to a series of suits under the new FOIA law brought by Susan Long, now TRAC's co-director, and her late husband, Philip Long, the IRS began providing the American people a great deal of detailed statistical information concerning its operations. Then, about three years ago, this long period of relative openness came to an end.

But recently, the IRS modified its recent closed door policy and provided TRAC with statistical data from an agency management system called Table 37. The agency's action was reluctant, taken in response to an April 4, 2006 ruling by Federal Judge Marsha J. Pechman of the Western District of Washington. The ruling instructed the IRS to comply with a 1976 order from the same court that it provide Susan Long with extensive statistical information.

The IRS fought against the release of the Table 37 information. First the agency asked Judge Pechman to stay her order. The judge denied the agency request on August 2, 2006. Then the IRS asked the Justice Department to take Judge Pechman's order to the federal court of appeals. On December 12, 2006, the department informed TRAC that it had denied the IRS request.

Both denials were good news. However, despite losing in court, the IRS is still dragging its feet on providing both the prompt and complete monthly updates the court order requires. The Table 37 data we have received, current through the first half of FY 2006, finally does allow us to resume reporting on face-to-face audits of taxpayers. This special report on the decline in the enforcement effort of the IRS against the nation's largest corporations is the first we hope to prepare which mines this new data.

However, the FOIA battle is far from over. The IRS continues to sit on most of TRAC's requests — many pending now for two and a half years. And the trickle of official IRS FOIA responses that TRAC is beginning to receive signal IRS's continuing intransigence and unwillingness to providing public access to detailed statistics about many agency activities, along with a closed-door policy on releasing any meaningful results from taxpayer-financed studies on how our tax system is functioning.