05/13/2013 02:52 pm ET Updated Jul 13, 2013

IRS Déjà vu

Using the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as an instrument of political intimidation and retribution is, sad to say, not new. That is why playing partisan politics with the recent selective targeting detracts from eliminating this alarming systemic practice once and for all.

Conservative organizations were the victims this time around. But back in 2006 under President George W. Bush, the environmental organization, Greenpeace, was singled out by the IRS for an audit under pressure from an Exxon-Mobil Oil Co. backed think tank. The Bush IRS happily complied, given Geeenpeace's constant barrage of criticism aimed at the Administration's energy and environmental policies. Such hassle gave Greenpeace staffers plenty of angst, but at the end of the day, they were told by the IRS simply to keep better records.

Two years earlier, the Bush Administration instructed the IRS to apply extra scrutiny to tax deductions taken by people contributing cash and/or real estate to environmental organizations. Behind the selective enforcement lurked the threats of penalties for the donors and loss of tax exempt status for the organizations if anything improper was detected.

In 2002, Advocates for Youth was targeted by the IRS after 24 Republican members of Congress wrote a letter demanding an audit of this organization opposed to a GOP initiative pushing abstinence-only sex education in secondary schools.

On a personal note, I knew of an environmental journalist who was a consistent critic of Ronald Reagan. Despite the journalist's modest income and seamless tax records, he was audited three times during Reagan's eight years in office. Coincidence?
Of course, past IRS selective enforcement was not limited to the environmental field. A case in point. The tax exempt status of the All Saints Episcopal Church of Pasadena, CA was investigated after its minister raised hackles by preaching against the Iraq War just prior to the 2004 presidential election. And then there was Richard Nixon, who in his Articles of Impeachment, was accused of employing the IRS against his political enemies.

The temptation to use the IRS as a political weapon is there for both Democrats and Republicans. Hence, the structural change needed to prevent any further agency abuse must be a product of bipartisan cooperation and non-partisan durability. If instead, the controversy disintegrates into a full blown political donnybrook, the underlying problem will fester and inevitably resurface.