An Appreciation: Congressman John Lewis, 1940-2020

The passing of John Lewis, who was brought to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol this week, has focused a great deal of much deserved attention and praise for his role in the civil rights movement inside and outside of Congress. In addition to his valuable work in the civil rights movement and for human rights in the United States and around the world, the Hon. John Lewis worked to ensure the rights and due process for taxpayers in America, and NTU would like to honor him for this legacy.

John Lewis worked for a very long time for IRS reform, and most recently for the passage of the Taxpayer First Act.  Tax compliance and enforcement has all too often fallen heavily on communities of color and those for whom English is a second language. This is one reason why the National Council of La Raza and the American Civil Liberties Union joined an NTU-led coalition on behalf of the first-ever IRS Taxpayer Bill of Rights. But linking these events to Lewis’ support for taxpayer rights makes his legacy far too shallow.

Congressman Lewis’s concern for the small business community as a whole led him (along with fellow Georgia lawmaker Doug Collins, R) to champion the Clyde-Hirsch-Sowers Act, which protected innocent taxpayers from reckless IRS seizure tactics based on suspicion of “structuring.” For many years he and a handful of his colleagues persistently advocated for a statutory remedy to the IRS’s behavior, despite the tax agency’s rather anemic pledges to do better. As he noted, “We have a responsibility to ensure those small businesses that are not engaged in illegal activities, but were unintentionally captured by the law, are made whole.”

The Taxpayer First Act contained many desirable provisions besides the entirety of the Clyde-Hirsch-Sowers Act. And, due to the effective partnership between then-House Ways and Means Committee Chair Kevin Brady, Ranking Member Richard Neal, Oversight Subcommittee Chair Vern Buchanan, and Subcommittee Ranking Member Lewis, the package nearly made it into law in 2018. Alas, NTU had witnessed this spectacle many times before with IRS reform legislation: “wait until next year,” and then be forced wait again once the next year arrives.

Thus the Taxpayer First Act could have easily been swept into the legislative dustbin when a new Congress began with new leadership in 2019. But thanks to Congressman Lewis’s leadership as the new Chair of the IRS Oversight Subcommittee, along with that of Ranking Member Mike Kelly (R-PA), the bill had new life (both lawmakers were original sponsors of the bill). Working to bridge the divide between his Republican and Democratic colleagues, Chairman Lewis patiently and nimbly navigated some last-minute concerns about the bill and helped shepherd the Taxpayer First Act into law by July of that year. Rightfully calling the bill a “ray of hope,” he also perceptively observed that “even in the most difficult times, we can come together as a nation, as a people and as a Congress to accomplish important things for the American people.” And so we did.

Throughout 2020 until the end of his life, Congressman Lewis continued to speak out for justice in the way the IRS worked, such as calling for swift appointment of a new National Taxpayer Advocate and expressing concern over the agency’s decision to mail outdated tax-due notices in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.

I had the great honor of meeting John Lewis when I was invited to testify before the Oversight Subcommittee in late 2017. He was not only gracious, but genuinely interested in NTU’s views as well as hopeful that legislative progress could be made on important tax administration issues going forward. His optimism was proven warranted less than two years later.

At the end of our discussion, I shook hands with Congressman Lewis, then the Ranking Member of the Subcommittee, and I felt as if I were shaking hands with history. But that history was not one of which our nation could be proud. As I left the hearing room, I asked myself: how could a man, who had been abused by his own countrymen and government, stand so tall for taxpayers? While the difficulties facing taxpayers cannot compare to the fight that Lewis has led for civil rights, he had the conviction and courage to recognize that every American, especially those whose voices are rarely heard, deserved protection and rights under the law. The fight for his fellow Americans infused every aspect of his work.

Thank you John Lewis, for your invaluable contributions to this nation, including your less heralded, yet still vital work on behalf of taxpayers. You will always be remembered.