In an effort to identify the person or persons responsible for IRS harassment of conservative organizations the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has investigated and held hearings since May of last year. Last week the committee held another hearing and recalled former IRS official Lois Lerner to answer questions. But, invoking her 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination, she refused to testify for a second time.
After Ms. Lerner refused to answer several of his questions Chairman Darrell Issa abruptly adjourned the hearing over the shouted objections of Ranking Member (most senior Democrat) Elijah Cummings, who wanted to voice complaints about the committee’s investigation. Cummings continued bellowing as Issa tried without success to turn off the microphones and then walked out of the room.
Predictably, the “news” was mostly about Issa Vs Cummings. The shameful spectacle of Ms Lerner, a senior government official, refusing to answer questions from The People’s representatives was treated by most of the media as an insignificant detail.
In defending itself the Obama Administation has used the same diversion as many of its predecessors, claiming to be unfairly persecuted by a thuggish investigator. Thus, Chairman Issa has suffered character assassination and baseless, presposterous allegations.
Issa’s questions and requests for documents have been brushed off by the Administration for nearly a year now and he can be forgiven for being fed up. But his actions fed the persecution narrative, enabling the media herd to target him with 48 hours of sanctimonious indignation.
But the Administration and the media can not overcome the undisputed facts, starting with the timeline to the right.
The scandal is rooted in IRS’s Exempt Organizations (EO) unit. Non-profit organizations apply to EO for “determinations” that they qualify for tax exempt status.
So far the investigations and committee hearings have confirmed, beyond any doubt, that after the IRS was scolded by high ranking Democrats for not silencing tea party activists, scores of Conservative or Tea Party non-profits suffered…
Two Unconstitutional Abuses of Power
- After they sent in their applications, 25-40 page questionnaires that can take weeks of an organization’s leadership and staff time to complete, EO officials sent back lists of additional questions that were outrageously invasive and inappropriate, and required hundreds of pages to answer. Since the answers to the questions were not relevant to the EO’s determination function the only plausible reason for demanding them was to harass and intimidate Conservative applicants.
- Their applications were held in limbo for periods of 18 to 36 months or more without action. They received neither approvals nor denials. Had their applications been denied the organizations had the right to appeal. Or, they could have made changes to their operations to bring them into compliance with IRS regulations and reapplied. But no action at all from the IRS became a de facto denial without any recourse.
Some in the media say this was not an attempt to silence conservatives because liberal groups were also “scrutinized.” But, there are four reasons we know that Conservative or Tea Party groups suffered the two abuses of power above and that liberal groups did not:
- The targeting of Tea Party groups was first announced by Lois Lerner (the same Lois Lerner who now refuses to answer questions) who was at the time in charge of EO. She disclosed the existence of be-on-the-lookout or BOLO lists of key words such as “tea party” and “patriot” that staff used as a guide to flag applications for the two abuses of power. From her May 10 announcement came the initial headlines that conservative groups had been mistreated.
- A few days after Ms. Lerner’s announcement the Treasury Department Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) published the report of his audit, confirming that Conservative organizations had suffered abuses 1 & 2 above. TIGTA conducted scores of interviews and reviewed thousands of documents and found no indication that any left-leaning or “progressive” groups had suffered the same two abuses of power.
- Some of the Tea Party groups came forward and testified at one or more of the Congressional hearings. Their attorneys, who have filed lawsuits against the IRS, publicly released examples of the inappropriate questions. Some of those questions are here. Even though they were invited to testify no leftist or “progressive” groups reported having had their applications delayed or having to respond to long lists of invasive questions.
- The interim head of the IRS, appointed by the President in May, acknowledged that the abuses took place and submitted to Congress his plan to “clear the backlog” of Conservative/tea party groups who were still waiting for determinations, some for three years or more.
Since the Obama 2012 reelection campaign was the obvious beneficiary of sidelining Tea Party activists, suspicions have been roused and it has become imperative for Democrats to develop and plant in the media misleading scenarios like these:
- IRS was only doing its job. It gave “extra scrutiny” to groups with political agendas. But the abused groups aren’t complaining about “extra scrutiny” which would normally add a few weeks to the application review process. Their primary complaints are the two abuses of power: They had to answer invasive, inappropriate and irrelevant questions and no decision was made on their applications. They waited up to three years, with their activities on hold, without receiving either approvals or denials.
- There have been vague reports of additional BOLO lists that included the key word “progressive.” It’s possible that some progressive applications were given “extra scrutiny” which could mean anything from a second pair of eyes going over the forms to a couple of clarifying questions being sent out. But so far however, there are no examples of any left-leaning groups who suffered two abuses of power. The Inspector General did not find any, and none have come forward to complain, even though the Congressional committees put out an open invitation.
- From the beginning Democrats had tried to insulate the Administration from the scandal by pinning all the blame on a few low-level IRS employees in the Cincinnati office, where much of EO operation was located. Even White House Spokesman Jay Carney weighed in, telling reporters on May 20, 2013 that “there were line employees at the IRS who improperly targeted conservative groups.”
But Cincinnati-outpost deception was shattered by direct testimony in Congressional hearings. The under-reported headlines: One of the “line employees” in Cincinnati, Elizabeth Hofacre testified that she was not permitted to process what were internally called “tea party cases” in the normal manner. She was ordered to wait for instructions from Carter Hull, an IRS attorney in Washington D.C. Eventually she requested a transfer to a different job out of frustration with Mr. Hull and the restrictive process.
Carter Hull testified that he also was told not to process the applications – to not to issue approvals or denials. He was instructed to wait for further instructions from Lois Lerner, and the IRS Chief Counsel, William Wilkins who is a Presidential appointee.
Thus, through their sworn testimony these two IRS employees have placed accountability for the two abuses of power at the very top of the IRS chain of command in Washington.
The IRS scandal highlights fundamental problems with our massive, federal government run largely by unaccountable bureaucrats:
- the IRS EO unit is empowered to apply an opaque screening process that facilitates inconsistent, and even capricious treatment of applicant organizations. Bureaucrats can, at will, harm some groups while giving a boost to others.
- Lack of accountability. Chairman Issa’s committee has tried since May to learn who is responsible for the two abuses of power. But the IRS, like many federal bureaucracies protects itself by making it nearly impossible for Congress to perform it’s Constitutionally mandated duties of oversight. Many people have many ambiguous roles in overseeing the application review process making it difficult to identify a decision maker.
Congressional Democrats are not interested in solving these fundamental problems. Unaccountable bureaucracies with unchecked power are the intended result of the laws they have enacted for decades, especially their two most recent triumphs: ObamaCare and the Dodd-Frank Financial regulation law that placed virtually limitless power in the hands of bureaucrats.
Some Republicans seem to believe they must tie this scandal directly to President Obama in order to maintain even minimal media attention. But this strategy has backfired because it set a bar too high. The media have reacted as if there is no story until Republicans can produce video of the President whispering to Lois Lerner or handing off a bag of cash.
Obviously, it is a scandal if the President is involved. But even if he is not involved this scandal should be treated as an alarm bell, another indicator that the raw power of unaccountable bureaucracies must be curtailed.
Government bullying and intimidation of The People is dangerous and unacceptable whether or not the President is involved. Even if the President knew nothing the IRS still acted in favor of one side and against the other in a political contest between competing ideologies. This is dangerous and unacceptable. The Republican’s main goal should be a reformed IRS without the power to infringe on the First Amendment rights of The People, even if they can never prove the President was personally involved.