“‘Tis strange — but true; for truth is always strange; Stranger than fiction.”
As the House Ways and Means Committee begins hearings on Friday to investigate the Internal Revenue Service’s vague admission of targeting conservative groups, Lord Byron’s words capture the mood of much of the nation.
The narrative from the earliest spin of the initial inquiry into alleged IRS abuses is perplexing. A draft report by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration — a watchdog established under Congress’s last round of IRS reform 15 years ago — apparently levels blame on a small number of low-level IRS staff. They took it upon themselves to “inappropriately” target Tea Party and other conservative groups who were seeking tax-exempt status. According to defenders of the Obama Administration, that’s all there is, nothing left to see here. In reality, the report raises as many questions as it answers.
White House press secretary Jay Carney initially blundered when trying to distance President Barack Obama from the scandal. He referred to the IRS as an “independent agency,” which is patently incorrect. In fact, it is a part of the Department of Treasury, in the executive branch.
The president won’t be able to simply sidestep this issue by claiming ignorance.
There are two particularly troubling aspects to the metastasizing IRS scandal for the president. They suggest that much of the story, and with it the political fate of this Administration’s second term, is yet to be told.
First, it is counter-intuitive to think that the ideological focus of the alleged actions were driven by a few career civil servants. Taxpayer abuse generated solely from within the IRS is typically bi-partisan bullying and intimidation by bureaucrats who work for an agency that has been delegated too much power and that has been subject to insufficient oversight by congressional committees. So, why now persecute a single ideology — particularly one that happens to be different from that of the current Administration? To date, only a smattering of similarly situated “progressive” groups have been identified as receiving similar treatment.
This isn’t to imply, of course, that the history of the IRS is devoid of politically motivated abuse. It has quite a well-established track record. For example, as recounted in The New York Times Magazine nearly 25 years ago, two of President Obama’s role models — Presidents John F. Kennedy and Franklin Delano Roosevelt — aggressively used the IRS to punish foes. JFK brought the agency to bear against persons ranging from “right-wing extremist groups” (sound familiar?) to noisy neighbors at the Cape who irritated him when he was on vacation. President Richard Nixon infamously authorized the creation of the ominous-sounding Special Services Staff, or SSS, within the IRS, to investigate and audit thousands of individuals, including war resisters and members of other groups opposed to his Administration. This part of the agency’s history is ugly and long, and extended across both aisles when Administrations became arrogant and the press abdicated its role as watchdog of our democracy. But it hadn’t reared its ugly head in some time.
The second significant concern for the West Wing is that alleged victims are now coming out of the woodwork. Individuals are stepping forth who believe — justifiably or not — that their audits may have been triggered by their criticism of the Obama Administration. And according to two Republican House members, the IRS apparently targeted more than 470 conservative groups.
So, the stage is set for a three-ring circus. Ways and Means chairman Dave Camp is angry because he believes he was lied to by the IRS commissioner about this subject in March 2012. Democrat Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has promised to follow suit and hold hearings — he has no political choice and likely feels betrayed as the head of the Senate’s IRS oversight committee.
In the background is an aggressively and outspokenly ideological president who will have to make the case that IRS staff carried out their own agenda that neither he, nor anyone in the White House, had anything to do with. He will also have to defend the major role of the IRS — whose credibility will be shaken to the core — as enforcer of his defining legislation, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
As we march closer to the 2014 midterm elections, the scandal, which isn’t going away any time soon, may actually reinvigorate the Tea Party and other grassroots activist groups who had lost some of their mojo.
Considering all of this, perhaps the words of Creedence Clearwater Revival, rather than Lord Byron, are more apt here: “I see the bad moon arising, I see trouble on the way.”