When is it not silly season in Washington, D.C.? Congress is apparently having a ball with the latest misery of the IRS. Some Republicans are saying that the scandal goes straight to the White House. Where's the proof? Some Democrats are insinuating that taxpayers who use dangerous words like "patriot" should not be surprised that their subversive words draw extra government scrutiny. Really?
Most pundits act like they already know where the truth lies here. But do they? Does anyone?
Well, let's look at what we do know. The IRS is an extremely powerful government agency. And while I have taken the occasional beating over the years for defending a large bulk of the organization as hard-working dedicated tax administrators, some IRS employees have had great difficulty with that kind of power. Over the years there have been high-ranking IRS officials who conveniently forgot that they were public servants who were supposed to serve, you know, the public. And there have been high-ranking tax administrators who have had trouble with the balance between enforcement and service (let's face it, it's a challenging balance) or who just flat-out preferred the enforcement power -- kind of like the cop who loves to tailgate people late at night just to remind them who has the power.
Then there is the issue of transparency. The IRS historically doesn't like it -- at least with respect to itself. It seems the great scrutinizer doesn't much appreciate being scrutinized. There's 40 years of litigation under the Freedom of Information Act between Tax Analysts and the Internal Revenue Service to illustrate that. Tax Analysts has always fought for transparency in how our tax code is administered to, among other things, defend a bedrock principle of tax administration: that similarly situated taxpayers are treated similarly. By it own admission, the IRS violated that principle, at least for some period of time, when it came to its "policing" of 501(c)(4) organizations. Combining a misunderstanding (and I'm being kind here) of power with a lack of respect for that equality principle will always lead to something bad.
But there's more. Back in 1998, Congress passed a bill that "restructured" and "reformed" the nation's tax collection agency. It appears now that in large part that reform has failed. And, yes, that legislation was pushed by Republicans, but it was signed by President Clinton. (For the Democrats who missed the shot here, the fact that the last real IRS Commissioner was appointed by President Bush is completely irrelevant to the latest issues at the IRS, unless you want to argue that President Bush knew how to appoint a real IRS Commissioner and the best President Obama can do is appoint someone to act like an IRS Commissioner.)
The Internal Revenue Service Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998 provided several safeguards to make sure the IRS properly did its job and didn't abuse taxpayers. It strengthened the National Taxpayer Advocate -- but nobody listens to her. It created the IRS Oversight Board -- but nobody takes its recommendations seriously. It set up a special inspector general inside the Treasury Department specifically to monitor the IRS -- but apparently Congress has only recently heard of the existence of TIGTA.
My point here is that we will find out more as we find out more. But we already know something vital. The IRS is seriously and dangerously broken. This is not only unfair to the many dedicated public servants at the IRS; it's unfair to all of us. Get to the truth. Arbitrarily punishing the IRS isn't going to help any more than blindly defending the agency. The IRS needs fixing and it needs it now, and that starts with new and strong leadership inside the agency, and a president who is willing to spend the political capital on IRS reform. We don't have that president. As for the Republicans, they'd rather turn the IRS into Monica Lewinsky.
Like I said: it's already bad enough.
Bergin is president and publisher of Tax Analysts and an expert on federal tax policy. He also blogs at TaxAnalysts.com.