Government scandal is nothing new for America. Yet we are seeing something uniquely sinister unfold as we speak: The increasing evidence of a sustained and concentrated attack on citizens via the Internal Revenue Service.
The IRS admitted this week that it participated in illegal activities against the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) by supplying another political group, the Human Rights Commission, with sensitive and law-protected information regarding NOM. The IRS’s $50,000 settlement with NOM is the beginning, not the end, of this disturbing investigation into a prolonged effort by a government agency to punish political opponents of the administration.
Lois Lerner, the former IRS operative responsible for reviewing tax-exempt organizations during the political targeting, told Congress last week that thousands of emails between IRS officials discussing political groups were “unfortunately lost” due to a computer crash. It’s hard enough if one accepts this explanation to get beyond the stupendous serendipity of it all. The reality is that this scenario is laughable. There’s no reason to question Lerner’s revelation that the emails are unavailable, just her explanation that a hard drive crash is the culprit. Such a narrative is ridiculous on its face in a time in human history in which nearly all electronic communication is stored on a server or cloud database. Even leftward bloggers who cover the technology beat are chuckling at Lerner’s claims.
Lerner’s willingness to offer ludicrousness for the disappearance of evidence is symptomatic of an administration that has a real problem with transparency. Mainstream media are even beginning to notice the White House’s proclivity for evasiveness: Earlier this year Time cited a study by the Associated Press that concluded that the President’s administration was “the most secretive ever.” Of course, all reasonable people can sympathize with the need to protect national security data and other such information. But the Obama administration operates from a default position of secrecy; what kind of credibility does the government have right now to warrant the benefit of the doubt?
Let us be clear about one thing: This is not just another episode of “Government Officials Behaving Badly.” The revelations about the IRS’s sustained political targeting are more than a scandal; they are a declaration of enmity between the government and its own citizens. One wishes that when Vice President Joe Biden declares that the acceptance of gay rights is the “mark of civilized country,” he would add that no citizen should be targeted by its own government for disagreeing with that idea. But does the White House really believe that? If so, how would we know?
As far as the IRS goes, the debacle raises serious questions about the purpose and extent of this extremely powerful agency. Jordan Sekulow and Matthew Clark are exactly correct when they say that the IRS has proven it is “incapable of investigating itself.” For the IRS to admit a gross misuse of its power the same month that it throws out absurdity as to why total transparency is now impossible is a complete farce. He who has ears to hear, let him hear that the IRS will not, under this administration, come clean.
This catastrophe has inspired some intellectuals to ask whether it would be better to just get rid of the agency. Robert P. George, professor at Princeton, thinks so: He says the IRS “has become an active threat to the integrity of our political system” and should be dumped and replaced “as expeditiously as possible.” He has a point: This isn’t the first time or the second time that the IRS has been accused of being a politically weaponized agency. Tax reform is a perennially hot topic in Washington. Maybe if nothing else good comes from the IRS’s criminal targeting, it will spur anew the conversation about better ways to fund the country.
For all of his campaign rhetoric that emphasized “reaching across the aisle” and “not going it alone” (supposedly like his predecessor did), Mr. Obama’s government has benefitted enormously from the polarization of American political culture. As uncomfortable as Lois Lerner may be in front of a Congressional panel, she probably sleeps easier at night knowing the media has her back. The New York Times, to cite one example, was incapable of asking the tough questions of the government; instead, it bizarrely predicted that Karl Rove and the Koch brothers would end up being the “big winners” from the investigation. It is obvious that, at least until government officials are taking mug shots, mainstream media outlets have precious little interest in helping the public keep Washington accountable for this terrifying miscarriage of justice. But again, this seems appropriate for a government that scoffs at all inquiry.
The presumption of good faith is an important part of civil life. No matter what political party is in power, the country is healthier and more open when its citizens can assume that, wrong policies and beliefs notwithstanding, the government is seeking to do right by its people. The IRS’s criminal behavior and Lois Lerner’s lack of transparency before the American people make that presumption more difficult. No government should weaponize its political institutions to marginalize those who are the “loyal opposition.” We should hope that the President’s government turns from its destructive path as soon as possible.