President Donald Trump plans to nominate Charles “Chuck” Rettig to be the next commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). If nominated and confirmed by the Senate, Rettig would serve a five-year term as head of the revenue collection agency. Rettig would replace Treasury Assistant Secretary for Tax Policy David Kautter who has served as acting IRS commissioner since November 2017, when former Commissioner John Koskinen left the agency at the end of his term.
Though White House aides have yet to comment on Rettig’s potential nomination, Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) has praised his qualifications, saying the agency needs a leader with knowledge of the tax code.
Who is Charles Rettig? Rettig is not well known in Washington’s tax policy circles. He has been a tax lawyer with the firm Hochman, Salkin, Rettig, Toscher, and Perez, P.C. for 35 years. He has built a broad practice advising U.S. taxpayers in foreign and domestic voluntary disclosures, civil tax examinations where civil penalty issues or assertions of fraudulent conduct were at issue; and defending criminal tax fraud investigations and prosecutions. During his career, Rettig has represented clients before the IRS, the Tax Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, various state taxing authorities, and in federal and state courts.
In addition to his tax practice, between 2010 and 2011, Rettig was appointed to serve as chair of the IRS Advisory Council (IRSAC). IRSAC advises the IRS on various tax administration issues, making recommendations on existing and emerging policy. IRSAC issues an annual report making various suggestions on operational improvements, best practices for IRS activities, standards for tax professionals, and procedural issues.
Given his IRSAC tenure, Rettig is a familiar name to several IRS officials who have worked with him on the council and on several tax litigation matters. Still, he is a somewhat unusual choice for commissioner. For the past two decades, after the IRS Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998, commissioners have come from the business world.
Political Ties. While Rettig is not a newcomer to Washington, he has few notable political ties. In the past, he has made campaign contributions to both Republican and Democratic candidates. That said, Rettig has generally given more to Democrats than Republicans. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) has received the most from Rettig over the years — about $8,000 in total. Rettig has also donated to former Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) and to Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA).
Prior to the 2016 presidential election, Rettig donated equally to both President Barack Obama and former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. During the last election, Rettig supported President Trump and made contributions to his campaign and a political action committee.
Trump Tax Returns. While Rettig may not have major political ties to the president, he did opine on the topic de jour – the president’s tax returns. In a Feb. 2018 Forbes Magazine article, Rettig wrote: “Is there any legal impediment to Trump publicly releasing his tax returns? Absolutely not. Would any experienced tax lawyer representing Trump in an IRS audit advise him to publicly release his tax returns during the audit? Absolutely not.”
Rettig went on to caution that people might not find all the information they seek in Trump’s tax returns. He noted that an overall financial picture will not surface by simply reviewing Trump’s returns since he likely “pays taxes at a lesser rate than many of us given the nature of his real estate and similar investments being subjected to lower tax rates than salaries earned by the rest of us.” Rettig also wrote that any “maneuvering” by tax professionals to lower Trump’s tax rate is likely legal and even encouraged by the tax code.
Views on the IRS. In a departure from the GOP’s penchant for IRS-bashing, Rettig is sympathetic to Koskinen’s views on the agency, noting that certain lawmakers should consider toning down criticism of the IRS.
Rettig has outlined his views on the role the agency should play as well: “The IRS must balance service to the taxpayer community with an appropriate degree of enforcement of our nation’s tax laws.” Rettig acknowledged the IRS’s public fall from grace, noting that the agency must seek to gain taxpayer confidence. Rettig also discussed various other issues at the IRS, including tactics to keep employees motivated and the importance of preserving a deep berth of institutional knowledge to train new employees.
In his written work, Rettig also displays familiarity with the structure of the agency, noting that the IRS’s tax administration operations often depend on who commissioners appoint to management positions, including, most importantly the deputy commissioner for services and enforcement having responsibility for overseeing the four primary operating divisions of the IRS — the Wage and Investment Division, the Large Business and International Division, the Small Business/Self-Employed Division, and the Tax Exempt Governmental Entities Division.
Given the importance Rettig placed on these positions, if he is appointed to serve as commissioner, this will be something to watch out for. Who Rettig chooses to fill these rules will offer clues on the future of the agency, especially amidst the GOP’s continued efforts to restructure the IRS.
Views on Koskinen. Shortly after former President Obama’s nomination of Koskinen, Rettig acknowledged that Koskinen had an uphill task ahead of him, especially given that the agency had recently been accused of targeting taxpayers for extra scrutiny based on their political ideology. Rettig wrote that based on Koskinen’s previous experiences, he would “likely perform in a politically satisfactory manner” and that “he deserves our support and respect for his willingness to assume the position of Commissioner” given the state of affairs at the agency.
An Uphill Task. Like former Commissioner Koskinen, if Rettig is confirmed, he will face an uphill battle at the IRS — albeit with less vitriol from the GOP. In addition to implementing the GOP’s tax law, he must contend with the damage caused by years of underfunding. Rettig will also have to continue the agency’s modernization efforts, implement a new cybersecurity framework, oversee the 2017 filing season, and potentially head the agency during a massive restructuring.