Law & the Courts

The House Takes on IRS Lawlessness

One congressman is working to ensure Lois Lerner 2.0 will never happen.

Representative Peter Roskam is now chairman of the Ways and Means subcommittee whose jurisdiction includes oversight of the Internal Revenue Service, and hence of Lois Lerner’s legacy. He knows how interesting her career was before she, as head of the IRS exempt-organizations division, directed the suppression of conservative advocacy groups by delaying and denying them the tax-exempt status that was swiftly given to comparable liberal groups.

In 2013, Roskam, in a televised committee hearing, told the story of Al Salvi, who in 1996 was the Republican’s Senate candidate against then-congressman, now senator, Dick Durbin. Democrats filed charges with the Federal Election Commission against Salvi’s campaign, charges that threatened to dominate the campaign’s final weeks. Salvi telephoned the head of the FEC’s Enforcement Division, who he says told him: “Promise me you will never run for office again, and we’ll drop this case.” So said Lois Lerner. After Salvi lost, FBI agents visited his elderly mother, demanding to know, concerning her $2,000 contribution to her son’s campaign, where she got “that kind of money.” When a federal court held that the charges against Salvi were spurious, the FEC’s losing lawyer was Lois Lerner.

Roskam’s telling of Salvi’s story elicited no denial from Lerner. Neither did the retelling of it in this column (June 13, 2013). No wonder: The story had not been deemed newsworthy by the three broadcast networks’ evening news programs, by the New York Times or the Washington Post. With most of the media uninterested in the use of government institutions to handicap conservatives, stonewalling would work.

It still is working through dilatory and incomplete responses to subpoenas, and unresponsive answers to congressional questions. Lerner’s name now has an indelible Nixonian stain, but there probably will be no prosecution. If the administration’s stonewalling continues as the statute of limitations’s clock ticks, Roskam says, “She will get away with it.”

Now in his fifth House term, Roskam, 53, says, “The advantage in this town is always with the entity that doesn’t want to do anything.” Many thousands of Lerner’s e-mails that supposedly were irretrievably lost have been found, but not released. The Justice Department’s investigation, which was entrusted to a political appointee who was a generous contributor to Barack Obama’s campaign, is a stone in the stone wall.

Roskam says the task now is “to see that Lois Lerner 2.0 is impossible.” One place to begin is with the evidence — anecdotal but, in the context of proven IRS corruption, convincing — of other possibly punitive IRS behavior toward Republican contributors and other conservative activists. This justifies examining the IRS’ audit selection process. This would produce interesting hearings for most of the media to ignore.

Next, there should be hearings into the illegal disclosure of taxpayer information about conservative individuals and groups to the media and to liberal officials and groups. Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer for some groups abused by the IRS (and for this columnist on different matters), also suggests prohibiting IRS employees from joining a union.

“The National Treasury Employees Union,” she says,

provides no protection to IRS employees that federal statutes and the civil service system do not already provide. It already takes an act of God to hold an IRS employee accountable for his or her actions. But it is worse than merely redundant for IRS employees to belong to the NTEU. Because it adds nothing to its members’ protections, it is a purely political organization. In 2014, fully 95 percent of its contributions went to Democrats, including eleven Democratic members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. So, the IRS employees’ union dues finance the election of people who are supposed to scrutinize IRS’ behavior.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments about whether the IRS’s lawlessness has extended to its role in implementing the Affordable Care Act. The act says that federal subsidies shall be distributed by the IRS to persons who buy insurance through exchanges “established by the state.” The act’s logic and legislative history, as well as a forceful statement by one of its architects, professor Jonathan Gruber of MIT, demonstrate that this clear language was written to “squeeze” — Gruber’s word — the states into establishing exchanges. But when 34 states did not establish them, the IRS began disbursing billions of dollars through federal exchanges.

The court probably will rule that the IRS acted contrary to law. If so, the IRS certainly will not have acted contrary to its pattern of corruption in the service of the current administration.

— George Will is a Pulitzer Prize–winning syndicated columnist. © 2015 The Washington Post

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