In March 2012, then-commissioner of the IRS Douglas Shulman told a hearing of the U.S. House that, “There's absolutely no targeting.” He also said, “we pride ourselves on being a non-political, non-partisan agency.” Not so much, as it turns out. Top IRS officials had known about the targeting since the previous summer. The current acting commissioner, Steven Miller, was briefed on the affair in May 2012, but didn’t reveal it to Congress either.
The IRS tells us that “mistakes were made initially, but they were in no way due to any political or partisan rationale.” Some statements parody themselves. And can you imagine the chaos and consternation that would have broken loose in the press if the IRS targeted organizations with “progressive” or “social justice” in their names?
The regulatory mentality always starts at the top. For example, I take full responsibility for setting the tone here in Texas with our taxes at this agency.
Whether it’s a Nixonian enemies list or a smear on a campaign website, when a president points his finger at an individual, the country is in a very bad way.
Some may remember the case of Frank VanderSloot, an Idaho businessman who made a large donation to Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2011. In April 2012, he was smeared on the Obama campaign website as “less than reputable.” Within a few months, he was being audited by the IRS and the Department of Labor. The audits found nothing, but they cost VanderSloot $80,000 in legal bills and months of time and effort.
Whether intentional or not, government agencies do take their cues from their bosses. It can be special favors — waived costs or prosecutions from the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — or harassment through the misery of the auditing process. But all targeted activities are harmful to democracy. When you’re administering the law, public confidence erodes in the exact proportion to the perceived abuse of your authority.
Talk about government transparency is cheap. But actions speak louder than words. And these actions are pretty frightening if they really reflect national policy. We must rebuild confidence, restore trust, and stop the bad behavior.