Politics & Policy

Big Government: The Dream and the Reality

The public sector isn’t what the president thinks and hopes it is.

President Barack Obama believes in the public sector. He thinks it should be made ever more expansive and entrusted with ever more complicated tasks. Its unions should be powerful. It should be hailed by all the great and good, and attract the nation’s best and brightest.

This is how the president portrays the public sector at a level of glittering generality. Then there’s the reality of all that government that is too big for him to monitor, the workings of which he learns about only when he reads the newspapers and watches TV. There’s the incompetence, the dishonesty, and the self-justification. There’s the spectacular unfairness and the obtuseness, all exemplified in the Internal Revenue Service scandal.

The innocent explanation of the affair is that the IRS’s Cincinnati office was so poorly run, it couldn’t manage to stop itself from discriminating against tea-party organizations applying for 501(c)(4) status — for years.

As it happens, the recent reporting on the Cincinnati office portrays a dreary backwater with all the élan of your local Department of Motor Vehicles. But not discriminating against organizations shouldn’t be overly difficult. It doesn’t require any technical expertise, just a modicum of fairness. The IRS couldn’t summon it.

According to Lois Lerner, the director of the Internal Revenue Service’s tax-exempt-organizations division and the poster bureaucrat for the scandal, there was a flood of applications for 501(c)(4)s that necessitated the “centralization” of the cases. The targeting of the tea-party groups wasn’t targeting at all, but an efficiency measure gone awry. “They did it because they were working together,” Lerner says. “This was a streamlined way for them to refer to the cases.”

In fact, the Washington Post notes that the number of applications barely ticked up from 2009 to 2010, when the practice of selecting tea-party groups began. It also makes no sense to respond to an overwhelming influx of applications with multiple rounds of intrusive and extraneous questions and with years-long delays. That is a way to create a backlog, not to alleviate it. It is a way to create more work, not less.

IRS functionaries still don’t think that they did anything wrong, in the sense that everyone else would understand it. Lerner maintains that the IRS workers “didn’t have the appropriate level of sensitivity about how this might appear to others, and it was just wrong.” But stringing along organizations from one side of the ideological spectrum, while quickly approving groups from the other, isn’t an appearance problem; it’s a real problem.

Ousted acting IRS commissioner Steven Miller told Congress that the agency was guilty of “horrible customer service,” which makes it sound like it delivered pizzas to the wrong address or failed to honor advertised discounts on merchandise.

If the IRS weren’t so blasé about other people’s rights, it would have found a way to stop trampling them long ago. The IRS didn’t have the excuse of everyone else in Washington. It didn’t have to wait for the outcome of any inspector-general report. It already knew it was guilty. It could have exposed its wrongdoing at any time, and thus ensured a stop would be put to it immediately through the blunt force of public outrage.

It didn’t. Instead, it obfuscated and misled in congressional testimony, and strung everyone along. We are supposed to believe that IRS officials bungled everything except keeping the agency’s own misconduct under wraps for as long as possible. They were ham-handed at everything except planting a question at an American Bar Association conference so Lois Lerner could pre-empt the inspector general’s report — and do it, in classic Washington fashion, on a Friday the day before the report’s release.

President Obama has a dream of what the public sector represents. In his rhetoric, it is a shining expression of our togetherness. He might want to acquaint himself with the actual government over which he presides from such an Olympian distance, and adjust his enthusiasm accordingly.

— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. © 2013 King Features Syndicate


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