The Internal Revenue Service admits that its agents engaged in “inappropriate” targeting of certain conservative political groups and has apologized — but there seems to be a lot more to the story.
Some people in the IRS decided that groups with “tea party” and “patriot” in their names should be given additional scrutiny, to see whether they were acting in ways inconsistent with their tax-exempt status. About 300 groups received the scrutiny. The IRS says that low-level employees were responsible and that, when more senior officials learned about it months later, the practice was stopped. However, it now appears that the IRS simply adopted new criteria that focused on “political action type organizations involved in limiting/expanding Government, educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights, social economic reform movement.” That doesn’t really seem much better, does it?
This story is disturbing on many levels. First, when individual IRS agents can target groups because of their politics, that should be troubling to everyone — regardless of their political views. When people are given the authority to act on behalf of the IRS, we expect that authority to be exercised responsibly, not politically. If IRS agents can agree to look at groups that have “patriot” in their names, what criteria might they use under the next Administration?
Second, where were the supervisors? How much unbridled discretion do individual IRS agents possess? Didn’t some manager notice a pattern in what the agents were doing and realize they were targeting groups on a political basis? The actions of the agents seem to contradict the statements made by the former IRS commissioner, Douglas Shulman, in testimony to Congress, and the IRS response contends that knowledge of what was happening was limited to people multiple levels below Shulman. So, the IRS defense seems to be that it is so bureaucratic that the Commissioner isn’t told about what is actually happening on the ground! That’s not very comforting, either.
In his recent remarks at the Ohio State University, President Obama encouraged graduates to reject cynicism and decline to listen to “voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems.” This IRS story is precisely the kind of story that breeds such cynicism. When IRS agents can target groups for political reasons, the IRS Commissioner denies that such targeting is occurring, and the IRS defends the truth of those denials because the agents involved were too far down the chain for the Commissioner to notice, perhaps a little cynicism is in order.