The IRS’s assault on common sense (Update: Treasury Department knew in 2012)

The IRS's assault on common sense (Update: Treasury Department knew in 2012)

UPDATE: The New York Times is reporting that the Treasury Department’s inspector general told Treasury officials back in June 2012 that he was auditing the IRS screening of conservative organizations seeking tax exemptions, meaning the Obama administration officials were well aware of what was going on during the presidential campaign year — taking this scandal to a new level.

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The first thing the American people should understand, according to Steve Miller, acting IRS commissioner of Internal Revenue Service (the man “fired” by President Barack this week) is that there was no nefarious intent behind the IRS scandals. The wholly “independent” agency — which also happens to be part of the Executive Branch — was merely guilty of providing “horrible customer service.”

So there’s that.

But one of the more curious defenses we heard during the congressional testimony so far is this: None of the IRS’s actions were motivated by “partisanship.”

Miller claimed, again, that “what happened here was that foolish mistakes were made by people who were trying to be more efficient in their workload selection — an “intolerable” “mistake,” but “not an act of partisanship.” And as CNN points out, “Democrats repeatedly asked the other witness Friday — Inspector General J. Russell George, who wrote the report on the controversy — to reiterate that there was no evidence of political motivation.”

It is true that critics can’t bore into the dark soul of the IRS, but surely we can take the evidence before us and make a reasonable assertion about intent.

The most obvious question is this: If the IRS scandal was not politically motivated, why then would it target conservative groups in such high numbers? Why draw up a list of offending phrases that is exclusively aimed at one ideological outlook?  And if the IRS was truly overloaded with tax exemption applications for 501(c)(4)s, why would it spend all that extra time targeting groups for special attention?

And why would the IRS wait until after the election to let Americans know what had happened, even though they knew (perhaps for a year) what was going on?

Congressman Jim McDermott chimed in during the hearing, claiming that there is a difference between “stupid mistakes and deliberate mistakes” (true) and that IRS officials “deeply regret” the “shortcuts” they took in accessing Tea Party/limited government groups (how on earth does Jim McDermott know if people deeply regret their actions?). McDermott went on, as many on the left have done, to blame the Citizens United decision for spurring scores of “far-right groups” to seek a voice in the political process. Using a partisan justification to argue that partisanship was no factor is not particularly helpful. Moreover, the Citizen United decision would make it more difficult for the supposedly stressed IRS to do its job and imbue it with more power. (UPDATE: Meanwhile, there was no surge in IRS tax-exempt applications in 2010.)

For those who do argue that the IRS was simply following the law … well, guess what, the Citizens United decision is also the law.

In part, the obtuseness of IRS leadership might be chalked up to reflexively defensive position that attempts to shield the agency from charges that it acted with political intent – the most egregious violation of the public trust.

Yet, as Kimberly Strassel points out, even without explicit communication this comes from the top. Barack Obama has been calling out groups for years, not only as political opponents, but as people undermining democracy and decency. He’s focused on them not as adversaries but as enemies. Many on the left, as I’m sure many in the IRS, don’t view groups with “patriot” in their slogans as partisan opponents but people actively undermining the law.

As early as January 2010, Mr. Obama would, in his state of the union address, cast aspersions on the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, claiming that it “reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests” (read conservative groups).

The president derided “tea baggers.” Vice President Joe Biden compared them to “terrorists.” In more than a dozen speeches Mr. Obama raised the specter that these groups represented nefarious interests that were perverting elections. “Nobody knows who’s paying for these ads,” he warned. “We don’t know where this money is coming from,” he intoned.

Many of the left don’t view themselves as particularly partisan when they take on ideological positions. Fact is, though we don’t know the scope of the sins, to argue that the sins aren’t partisan is a huge stretch.

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Follow David Harsanyi on Twitter @davidharsanyi.

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