Much of the liberal intelligentsia (including those in the Obama administration) have, to their credit, condemned the IRS targeting of conservative groups — or at the very least, have not sought to defend it. Perhaps that’s because all of the early attempts at justifying, excusing, minimizing, insulating, and explaining away the practice came up so short.
It was just Cincinnati.
This was one of the earliest attempts to minimize the bigness of this deal, one cooked into the IRS’s own statements and apologies. It is also one of the lamest.
It’s true that much of the targeting took place at the IRS’s Cincinnati offices, but that’s because that’s where the IRS’s Tax Exempt and Government Entities Division is headquartered.
If I punched you in the face, you wouldn’t take much comfort in my blaming only my hand. Besides, there were other offices involved — according to the Washington Post, at least two in California and one in D.C.
It was just “rogue,” “front line” people.
Similarly, the IRS’s 501(c) honcho, Lois Lerner, along with administration officials and their defenders in the media, emphasized that these were “front line” employees, not senior managers or political appointees. Just Wednesday, acting IRS commissioner Steven Miller claimed he had identified two “rogue” employees responsible for the bulk of the targeting. But the coordination between offices, and the involvement of Washington, cast doubt on the idea that this was a two-man job. Lerner became aware of the targeting, at the very latest, in 2011, and the IRS commisioner and his deputy learned about it in May of 2012. But none saw fit to go public with that knowledge, even though there were during this time well-documented complaints of excess scrutiny that were emanating from tea-party groups. Miller may have even lied about the targeting operation in response to congressional inquiries.
There was no political motivation.
Lerner has also claimed that there was no political bias involved in the decision to put conservative groups through the ringer. She would not elaborate on how she knows this except to say, “That is not how we do things.” This might be easier to swallow if hers hadn’t been the same division that last year illegally leaked tax information about Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS to George Soros’s ProPublica.
The IRS was “going where the action was.”
Both Ezra Klein and Kevin Drum have made the argument that, though it went about it sloppily, the IRS was trying to solve a legitimate problem: how to flag improper applications amid an explosion of applicants. They chose conservative linguistic markers, according to Klein, because there had been an increase in tea-party-themed applicants, and “like Willie Sutton robbing banks, [IRS auditors] were going where the action was.” The problem with that is it sounds a lot like the kind of profiling folks like Klein and Drum typically abhor in criminal investigations. And in a way, it’s worse, since the IRS has not presented any evidence, or any ex ante reason besides pure political bias, to think conservative groups were more likely to file unqualified applications than any other kind of group. As Megan McArdle rightly argues, the way to figure out where to focus your energy when you see a massive surge in applications is to take a random sample. The whole issue here is that the IRS took a decidedly non-random one.