Political targeting by the IRS is bigger, more complex than you think

A great book will be written about this. The IRS targeting of unorthodox Tea Party groups, pro-family groups, and others while Obama was president is going to only become a bigger scandal, and every day a new nugget of information shocks me.  For starters, the dribbling of new, damaging information implies that the White House is trying to contain the scandal instead of opening up with full transparency. Why, after so many weeks, has the public not been told who initiated the targeting? That is a simple thing to discover. A president should be able to get an answer to that question and to share it with the public within 24 hours.

Here are some of nuggets that are troubling:

1. Lois Lerner, who originally organized the failed spin event that alerted the public to the scandal, who is now on some kind of paid leave, who denied personal involvement and blamed “rogue” underlings for the targeting, worked for years at the Federal Election Commission before going to the IRS.  The FEC is the primary enforcer of political speech limits, euphemistically known as “campaign finance reform” laws.  For decades such limits were constitutional, but SCOTUS pared them back.

2. The spouse of ex-IRS chief Douglas Shulman was a vocal advocate for speech limits:

 Now, the focus has shifted to [Shulman’s] wife, Susan L. Anderson, after she was identified as a senior advisor for a liberal organization opposed to corporate influence in elections. The group, Public Campaign, says it is “dedicated to sweeping campaign reform that aims to dramatically reduce the role of big special interest money in American politics” and has defended the IRS in recent weeks.

Talk about euphemism, Public Campaign supports “Clean Elections” and “Fair Elections.”  Just not Free Speech.

3. No liberal/progressive groups have been identified that were harassed by the IRS. None.

4. More revelations about individual cases of IRS abuse indicate that crimes were committed — leaking of private information.  This is exactly the kind of institutionalized harassment conducted against civil rights groups in the 1950s!  It is a big, ugly, scary deal. Crimes means criminals. Who did this? The IRS dragged its feet doing its internal investigation in recent years, and tried to keep it hush-hush. Did the White House know about it?

It’s a fair point that a spouse’s political activity, however aggressive (e.g., a vocal liberal Occupy supporter), is improper guilt-by-association. Should the reputation of the IRS be smeared because its chief’s spouse was politically extreme and coincidentally the agency targeted groups she didn’t favor? Maybe not. It is also a fair question to ask what relationships were between IRS employees and the large network of anti-speech activists. Do we have any transparency on the latter question yet?  No. Do we have confidence that the administration will transparently investigate itself?  I do not. It is time for a special prosecutor.

Peggy Noonan is doing amazing work on this story.  Really, really great, and I could only do it justice by copying everything, so treat yourself and read here.

Finally, this week Russell George, the inspector general whose audit confirmed the targeting of conservative groups, mentioned, as we all do these days, Richard Nixon’s attempt to use the agency to target his enemies. But part of that Watergate story is that Nixon failed. Last week David Dykes of the Greenville (S.C.) News wrote of meeting with 93-year-old Johnnie Mac Walters, head of the IRS almost 40 years ago, in the Nixon era. Mr. Dykes quoted Tim Naftali, former director of the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, who told him the IRS wouldn’t do what Nixon asked: “It didn’t happen, not because the White House didn’t want it to happen, but because people like Johnnie Walters said ‘no.'”

That was the IRS doing its job—attempting to be above politics, refusing to act as the muscle for a political agenda.

Man—those were the days.

My grandfather, Ed Kane, told me that two scandals in his lifetime riveted his attention, and the national response fulfilled his faith in American democracy. McCarthy was one.  Watergate was the second.  This is our generation’s moment and I pray our institutions are up for it.

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