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The IRS Scandal Is Not about the President


One thing that I hope is not lost in the political maneuvering surrounding the IRS scandal: This is not mainly about the president, the Republicans, or either party’s political prospects. The first sentence out of practically every Democrat’s mouth has been: There’s no evidence the White House was involved. And that’s true enough, though there is very strong evidence that at least one Senate Democrat, Carl Levin of Michigan, was pressuring the agency to investigate tea-party groups.

Whatever happens politically in the next few years, Barack Obama will leave office at the end of his term — and the IRS will still be there. The permanent bureaucracies have political interests of their own, which may or may not align with the interests of any given candidate or any given party at any given moment. A dangerous, abusive, and politicized IRS is a serious threat to the well-being of our country: The rectitude of such institutions is an important part of what makes a free society and a free economy work. Labor is cheap in Haiti and Afghanistan, but there is a reason that people do not invest in those places. Even India, which has relatively good law and honest courts but a great deal of piddling corruption, especially in the lower levels of the bureaucracies, suffers economically because of political corruption. If you do not have credible institutions, it is difficult to thrive.

I am no admirer of the income tax or the agency that administers it, but it is likely that both of them will endure in something like their present form for the immediate future. (But not forever.) If we are to have an IRS, it is critically important that we have a credible IRS. But we do not, and in fact have not for some time. While I do not trust the Obama administration very much at all and am especially skeptical of Eric Holder’s Justice Department, we should welcome the attention the president and his associates are paying to the issue. That is especially true of the FBI’s decision to open a criminal investigation into the matter.

It’s fine if there is at some point political hay to be made out of this — that’s a key part of the adversarial nature of accountability in democratic politics, not a defect within it — but it would be a far better thing for the country if the president were to adopt such an aggressively reformist agenda for the IRS that there would be no hay to be made, no room to get to the right of him on the issue. The important thing is to make sure that the administration does the right thing here, even if it does so only because it is in the president’s political interests. When political incentives produce desirable outcomes, we should let them work. If the president wants to take the lead in this matter, fine: That’s what we have presidents for. That does not mean that Congress steps away from its oversight responsibilities or conducts anything less than a full and deep investigation: That’s why we have separation of powers.

I myself doubt very much that the president or any of his immediate circle had a hand in this — it is in the nature of the Left (and in the nature of political power itself) that no marching orders from the top are necessary. University presidents do not tell hiring committees to discriminate against conservative academics, they just do it. No president or Treasury secretary had to tell the IRS to do this.

In some ways, the received version of events is worse than would be a top-directed cabal of rogue IRS agents acting on orders from political superiors. A corrupt element within an agency can be rooted out, and a criminal conspiracy can be unraveled. When the agency is the criminal conspiracy, then the challenge of reform becomes that much greater.