Politics & Policy

An Outlaw Tax Collector

On March 22, 2012, IRS commissioner Douglas Shulman testified under oath before the House Oversight Committee, which was inquiring as to whether the agency was targeting tea-party groups and other conservative organizations filing for tax-exempt status. He firmly and repeatedly denied that any such thing was happening. “There’s absolutely no targeting,” he said. A little over a year later, the IRS confirmed that it was in fact improperly targeting not only tea-party groups but also Jewish religious nonprofits and organizations inspired by Glenn Beck’s 9/12 Project.

Lori Lerner, the IRS official in charge of tax-exempt organizations, told reporters on Friday that her superiors had been unaware of the actions, which she blamed on a handful of low-level employees in a Cincinnati office. But the next day, the Associated Press confirmed that well before Shulman’s substantially untrue testimony before Congress, the IRS had convened a meeting with its chief lawyer to discuss the very thing the commissioner said was not happening. In early 2012, the IRS adopted a new variation on the policy, flagging the applications from, among others, organizations “educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights,” according to an internal report.

#ad#The IRS’s explanation was perfectly Washingtonian: “Mistakes were made.”

But the agency’s actions do not appear to be mere mistakes; they give every indication of being misconduct with malice aforethought, a campaign of intimidation conducted by political partisans misusing government power and government resources. If so, those actions are not only unethical but criminal.

The organizations that were improperly targeted were subject to inquisitorial questioning in violation of IRS policies and practices. The IRS improperly demanded that conservative groups disclose lists of donors — 501(c)(4) donors can remain anonymous under the law — as well as political literature, contacts with political figures and activists, even activities of friends and family members not related to the organizations in question. Jewish groups were quizzed about their theological beliefs and their opinions on Israel.

There are at least three separate categories of wrongdoing here. The first is the targeting of groups that were believed to be critical of the Obama administration or the federal government in general. The second is the demanding of information that was irrelevant to the tax-status questions at hand, which would have been wrong even if the practice had been applied evenhandedly across the political spectrum. The third is the misleading of Congress and the public about these practices.

The IRS is one of the most powerful agencies in the federal government, with fearsome powers that the Department of Homeland Security can only dream of having. (Does DHS subject Americans to mandatory annual questioning about their personal lives, family arrangements, finances, business practices, travel, etc.?) It has a history of being used as a tool of political retaliation, not only by the Nixon administration but at least as far back as Franklin D. Roosevelt. An agency with that kind of power, with access to sensitive information on every individual, business, church, charity, and school in the country, must conduct itself according to the very highest standards. The IRS does not.

This episode is not the only reason we have had to question the rectitude of the IRS’s conduct in recent years. Somehow, Mitt Romney’s tax returns managed to be leaked, as did documents from American Crossroads, the organization associated with Republican strategist Karl Rove. The misuse of confidential IRS documents is a crime, and a serious one.

To target individuals and organizations because of their political and religious beliefs is a serious offense to our constitutional order. To use federal employees, offices, and records to do so is the misappropriation of government funds and other resources.

The IRS is a bureau of the Treasury Department, which means that Treasury Secretary Jack Lew bears some responsibility here, though the bulk of the misdeeds seem to have been done before his tenure. Rather than disclosing these actions voluntarily, the IRS has attempted to hide them and to obscure the culpability of its employees. Lois Lerner told National Review on Friday that no disciplinary action had been taken against any employee, and then retracted that statement, saying that she would not discuss the subject. But disciplinary action — at least — is clearly called for. The IRS’s failure to be fully forthcoming on this issue, and the lack of satisfactory steps toward reform and transparency, must weigh substantially upon our evaluation of Lew’s leadership.

This is a matter for congressional investigation, which will be forthcoming, but also for criminal investigation, which to our knowledge is not yet under way. President Obama and his Treasury secretary owe the country a full and honest explanation of how this was allowed to happen. But if Benghazi has shown anything, it is that this administration cannot be counted upon for such assessments. It therefore falls to the relevant oversight committees in the House and the Senate to flush out the truth of this matter, and to recommend legislative reforms to bring this outlaw agency to heel.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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