It’s a great scene in the greatest movie sequel ever made, The Godfather: Part II. A U.S. senator from Nevada, on the mob payroll, is questioning a midlevel subordinate of the Corleone family testifying before a Senate committee on organized crime. The senator is trying to establish that the underling he’s grilling never received a direct order from Michael Corleone to kill anybody.
Senator: Was there always a buffer involved? Someone in between you and your possible superiors who gave the actual orders?
Underling: Right. Yeah. A buffer. The family had a lot of buffers. (Laughter)
President Obama didn’t need to order the bureaucrats of the IRS to do his bidding. His daily rhetoric laid the foundation. And he put into positions of leadership of our nation’s biggest bureaucracies some of the most partisan political buffers this country has ever seen — buffers with scant experience in the private sector and, in many cases, outright hostility to business. It was President Obama who made Van Jones a household name. And Elizabeth Warren. And Lisa Jackson. And Eric Holder. And Kathleen Sebelius. And Louise Lerner, who ran the tax-exemption office of the IRS — after she had racked up a sordid track record at the FEC, hounding the Christian Coalition and a conservative challenger to Senator Dick Durbin in the late 1990s.
While it’s true that this IRS scandal is no Watergate, and that President Obama is not Richard Nixon, the story may prove to be more damaging to the Left than Watergate was to the GOP. Watergate, after all, wasn’t about a party’s philosophy; it was about one man’s paranoia, and criminality.
The IRS scandal is about much more. It’s about lifetime bureaucrats who are unelected and unaccountable and who yield all kinds of power over ordinary Americans, including the power to punish or scare people with whom they don’t agree. And the power to abuse their power because . . . they can.
This story is really about the administrative state grown wild. And gone wild.
President Obama’s chief consigliere, David Axelrod, was on TV recently defending his boss, but he actually made the case against everything his boss (and the Left) believes and presented the best case imaginable for conservatives when he said this on MSNBC’s Morning Joe: “Part of being president is there’s so much underneath that you can’t know, because the government is so vast.”
This is precisely what our Founders worried about when they created the Constitution. They built a legal framework that was all about dispersal of power. The Left’s legal framework is all about the distribution of wealth, which requires concentrating power in the permanently entrenched bureaucracies of Washington, D.C. It is precisely what the tea-party advocates believe: that our administrative state has grown too unwieldy. And the IRS went ahead and proved it.
The worst offense in this IRS scandal hasn’t been the manner in which conservative organizations were targeted for review and blocked from participating in two election cycles. No, disenfranchisement of conservative nonprofits wasn’t the IRS’s biggest sin; it was the “outing” of conservative donors who were promised anonymity, and whose anonymity is protected by an important Supreme Court case.
Back in the 1950s, the NAACP was working hard to desegregate the South, and it was starting to gain traction in this effort. That’s when some Alabama government hacks hatched a scheme: Why not compel the NAACP to reveal its donor lists? Alabama tried it, and the NAACP declined. Alabama then turned around and hit the NAACP with a civil contempt charge, issuing a $100,000 fine for refusing to comply with state orders. Alabama’s intent was clear: to chill further donations and cut off the NAACP’s money supply. And money is the lifeblood of any corporation, even a nonprofit one.
Donors to the NAACP had good reason for wanting to remain anonymous. They feared personal reprisals and worried their businesses might be punished, or worse, especially if they were white Southern donors.
The Supreme Court saw right through Alabama’s attack on the First Amendment rights of free association and free speech. Alabama lost, the NAACP was vindicated, and the Court set an important precedent.
Flash forward 55 years and we have an out-of-control IRS that is illegally disclosing the identities of people who donate to organizations that support limited government and traditional marriage. And the IRS outed these individuals for the same reasons that the segregationists in Alabama wanted to out the NAACP’s donors. The IRS then took things one step further and actually targeted some of those donors with IRS audits.
That’s about as bad as bad can be.
And when the IRS goes after you, it’s worse than when a prosecutor goes after you for committing a crime. You’re not innocent until proven guilty; you’re guilty until proven innocent. The fines start. And the penalties. And the interest. And soon, your lawyer and your accountant are pleading with you to pay some money just to make the IRS meter stop running, even if you were guilty of nothing.
I suspect that many Americans — especially those who have complicated returns — would prefer a frontal lobotomy to an audit.
Get accused by the government of a crime — say, robbing a fruit stand — and all kinds of rights are there to protect you, including the presumption of innocence. But when the IRS comes a-calling, everything is flipped. That’s why most Americans fear the one arm of the administrative state they know best: Internal Revenue. Because the government has all the power, and the citizen is at its mercy.
But for businesses across America — in industries such as energy, health care, pharmaceuticals, and automobiles — the administrative state is a force of nature they must deal with every day. The big federal agencies that regulate their part of the market are their IRS. And all across America, general counsels of companies that do business with the EPA, DOJ, FDA, and others are at the mercy of bureaucrats who can grind their businesses to a halt, fine them, accuse them of misdeeds, and make a general mess of their day-to-day operations.
Sometimes, the corporations deserve the scrutiny. But just as often, they don’t. The calculation innocent companies must make is this: Is fighting the bureaucrats who rule over your business every day, and who hold sway over your reputation, worth the legal battles? Is the loss of money and time — and the potential damage to your reputation — worth it?
To many general counsels of American companies, the answer is a resounding no. So they agree to settlements even when their clients are innocent. And they do it because it’s easier, cheaper, and more practical than facing the uncertainty of a prolonged, expensive legal battle.
That’s power the Mafia wishes it had, the kind of fear a Tony Soprano wishes he could instill.
Too many bureaucrats have too much power over the day-to-day lives of ordinary, law-abiding citizens. When the administrative state comes knocking at your door, it is the worst day of your life. And it is because you know — and the bureaucrats know, too — that they have the power to make your life miserable. They can make you an offer you can’t refuse.
Out of expediency and plain old common sense, too many Americans reluctantly submit to that power. So they pay — only to live the next day a little poorer, a lot more timid, and much more cynical about government and its ability to tyrannize its own people.
That is the real story behind the IRS scandal: the power faceless bureaucrats have to ruin the lives of ordinary Americans, and with little oversight or accountability.
Americans have every right to ask some fundamental questions about this sad state of affairs: Who polices this administrative police state that David Axelrod described as so vast as to be unmanageable? And who punishes it when it commits crimes against its own citizens?
Where are the new Woodward and Bernstein valiantly digging to expose this kind of story? Where are 60 Minutes and Frontline? And the rest of the fourth estate? Where is the Innocence Project? Will John Grisham write a novel about the silent victims of the ever-growing and ever-more-powerful administrative state?
It would make for a great piece of fiction. If only it weren’t so real.
— Lee Habeeb is the vice president of content at Salem Radio Network. Mike Leven is president and COO of the Las Vegas Sands.