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CNN Fact Check: 16,500 IRS agents to police health care?

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Bachmann responds to State of the Union
  • Bachmann says an army of IRS agents will be used to enforce the health care law
  • The head of the IRS told Congress that no taxpayers will be audited under the law

(CNN) -- In a second Republican response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address delivered on behalf of Tea Party activists Tuesday night, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann asserted that "Instead of a leaner, smarter government, we bought a bureaucracy that tells us which light bulbs to buy, and which may put 16,500 IRS agents in charge of policing President Obama's health care bill."

Fact Check: Will 16,500 Internal Revenue Service agents police the health care bill?

The number seems to have originated in a GOP committee report last spring, based on a preliminary estimate from the Congressional Budget Office that between $5 billion and $10 billion would be required to administer the health care bill. Working backward from the higher CBO number, the Republicans asserted that the money would be spent on 16,500 new IRS employees, including "additional auditors, agents and other employees ..."

But IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman testified to Congress in March 2010 that the IRS would not audit taxpayers to make sure they have bought health insurance. Instead, he said IRS employees would be focused on making sure the public knew about tax incentives in the legislation.

Obama addresses health care concerns

Shulman conceded that some new employees would be required to support the agency's work on the health care bill. But he said during an appearance at the National Press Club in April that he didn't know yet how many.

The most recent data from the IRS, from 2009, shows that the service has 93,337 employees, of whom 14,264 are revenue agents and an additional 2,725 are special agents. That's a current total of 16,989 agents to handle all investigations and taxpayer audits conducted by the IRS.

And Bachmann went further than asserting that 16,500 employees would be hired -- she said 16,500 IRS agents may be "in charge of policing" the health care bill.

But the health care bill specifically says that taxpayers who do not buy insurance "shall not be subject to any criminal prosecution or penalty with respect to such failure." And 16,500 agents would require the IRS to almost double its force of agents or divert nearly all its current agents from their existing audit and investigative duties. Either seems far-fetched, given the provisions of the health care bill that prohibit criminal prosecution or penalty of taxpayers who do not meet its provisions.

Bottom line:

Congresswoman Bachmann's assertion is, at best, misleading.

CNN's Richard Griffiths and Katie Glaeser contributed to this report.

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