The Corner

Re: Only Went to the White House Once

Andrew, I have to say the fuss being raised around the number of meetings the IRS commissioner attended at the White House strikes me as unreasonable and a mistake.

First of all, the comparison to cabinet members (“surprising, especially given that it was even higher than the secretaries of state and defense”) is surely a misunderstanding of how the White House visitors logs work, and how the White House policy process works.

Cabinet secretaries (and their deputies) have government cars and drivers, and they don’t generally enter the White House through the usual gate clearance process. They tend to be cleared and logged when they’re part of a larger list for a public event or large meeting, but I’d bet that most of their White House visits are not cleared and logged. They (like members of Congress) are pre-cleared top officials. So comparing the IRS commissioner to the secretary of state by their appearance in the visitor’s log doesn’t make sense. We know, for instance, that President Obama had a regular weekly meeting with the secretary of defense throughout his first term, but that is clearly not represented by the number of times the secretary appears in the logs.

Second, it actually wouldn’t be all that surprising if a sub-agency official whose bailiwick is central to the White House at a particular time visited more times than a cabinet official. Remember, visiting the White House doesn’t mean seeing the president. For a senior but not cabinet-level official, it almost always means visiting staff for a meeting. That can easily happen more than cabinet-level meetings.

I was a mid-level staffer in the Bush White House, working on HHS issues. If I or a colleague were to have a meeting with the Secretary of HHS, we would often go to him, since he was a cabinet secretary and we weren’t. He would come to the White House to meet with the president, chief of staff, or very senior advisers, which happens more rarely than staff-level meetings. But if we were going to meet with, say, the commissioner of the FDA rather than the secretary, he would be much more likely to come to the White House.

I suspect the IRS commissioner would do the same. He would probably attend deputies-level meetings, or maybe even PCC meetings (policy-coordinating committee, one level below the deputies) at the White House on issues central to his agency. The sheer number of White House visits by Shulman is no doubt striking, but to me, precisely, that high number suggests a pattern of regular repeating meetings — like a regular weekly or biweekly meeting. In the course of an intense policy process around Obamacare implementation, for instance, it’s easy to imagine a regular deputies-level meeting, and you can be sure the commissioner of the IRS, which is central to that implementation, would be there.

That doesn’t mean Shulman didn’t tell White House officials about the agency’s targeting of conservative groups or coordinate with them, though it doesn’t mean he did. It’s certainly an extremely high volume of meetings, and it surely sheds a light on the problematic role of the IRS in Obamacare implementation, if nothing else. But I don’t see a necessary or even likely connection to the shocking misbehavior of the agency and its leaders toward conservative groups. Why would coordinating that behavior with the White House (if that’s what’s being implied) have required 157 meetings?

It would be helpful (and entirely appropriate) if the White House explained what these meetings were about. Deep suspicion of the IRS is very clearly warranted, and the White House should acknowledge that. But I think it’s a mistake for critics of the agency’s outrageous mistreatment of conservative groups to focus on this question of meetings. It’s a distraction from the very real and serious scandal here and so takes away from the attention and scrutiny the IRS should be getting, and it just doesn’t seem like much of a red flag.

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.

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