Finally, we may be getting somewhere in the IRS scandal involving the targeting and harassment of tea-party groups applying for tax exemptions. At Thursday’s House Government Reform and Oversight hearing, some names were at last attached to some of the IRS’s most questionable actions in the scandal.
Back in May, top IRS officials Steven Miller and Lois Lerner insisted that “rogue” agents in the Cincinnati office acted without direction from IRS headquarters in Washington. But Elizabeth Hofacre, who was the Cincinnati agent in charge of reviewing flagged tea-party applications, says she “had no autonomy or authority” to act on applications and so she simply sat on them. She blamed Carter Hull, an IRS lawyer in Washington, for the delays, saying that he directed her in how to treat problem cases but never gave her any feedback.
For his part, Hull said he had tried to tackle the growing pile of applications, but he was told they must first go through a multi-tier review that involved Lerner’s office and that of William Wilkins, the IRS’s chief counsel. Wilkins, a political appointee of President Obama’s, has been involved in Democratic politics as a staffer and campaign donor for over 30 years. Wilkins’s office did not have its first meeting with IRS officials on the tea-party applications until August 2011; at that point the applications had been pending for so long that it was decided that the IRS needed to demand updated information from the tea-party groups, further slowing down the process. Hull says that the behavior of IRS management during this whole process was “unusual.”
It’s taken nearly three months to begin to peel back the onion and discover the chain of command in the IRS scandal. One of the bureaucracy’s biggest weapons against scrutiny and accountability is its ability to hide who actually makes decisions and who should be held responsible for them. Back in May, former IRS commissioner Douglas Shulman didn’t even pretend to know how the scandal had happened. Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus, a Democrat, asked him, “What caused that culture to develop, and what did you do about correcting that culture?” Shulman responded: “Mr. Chairman, I can’t say I know that answer.”
Similarly, acting IRS commissioner Steven Miller was asked by Representative Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican: “Who is responsible for targeting these individuals?” Miller responded: “I don’t have names for you.”
Later, he acknowledged that senior technical adviser Nancy Marks had identified someone as responsible for the targeting policy. When asked who it was, he repeated his mantra of the day: “I don’t remember.”
It’s an old tactic in Washington to attempt to “move on” from instances of bureaucratic abuse without assigning blame. J. Russell George, the IRS’s inspector general, revealed to Congress that a government official had recent “willful unauthorized access” to private tax documents. His office presented the evidence to the Department of Justice, but “the case was declined for prosecution.” George thought three other cases involving the access of tax documents involved “inadvertent” behavior, but it appears Justice didn’t do much checking on its own and declined to prosecute any of them.
Iowa senator Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, wrote Attorney General Eric Holder this month demanding answers. “The public needs to know whether the decision not to prosecute these individuals was politically motivated and whether the individuals were held accountable in any other way,” he wrote. Grassley said the IRS scandal may be expanding: Inspector General George recently told him his office is now investigating two cases in which the IRS may have targeted political candidates for an audit.
Morton Blackwell is head of the conservative Leadership Institute. A few years ago his organization went through an intrusive IRS audit which found no problems. He thinks it vital that the IRS scandal be pursued vigorously.
“If nothing ends up happening to the abusive employees, if no one is fired or demoted or disciplined, it will be very dangerous for all of us,” he told me. “Bureaucrats will conclude you can do just about any abuse of power with impunity.”
One of the reasons scandals in the bureaucracy can occur so easily is that the modern administrative state makes accountability so hard. “With government’s ever-expanding mission it’s impossible to know where the buck stops,” says New York University professor Paul Light, an expert on reforming government. “Accountability has been shredded, and you can’t tell who makes the decision, where the information gets stuck, or who is responsible for doing the job well.” In a 2005 study, he found an average of 18 layers “between, say, the secretary of agriculture and the forest ranger, or the secretary of the interior and the oil-rig inspector — up from seven layers in 1960.”
But the biggest problem with our bureaucracy is not its complexity. It is its ability to sidestep democratic procedures and make decisions on its own. Congress has increasingly delegated authority to agencies run by unelected bureaucrats who have incredible discretion in implementing laws that in turn can be incredibly vague. The new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, created by the Dodd-Frank financial-regulation bill, was given the following mandate by Congress: “Ensure that all consumers have access to makers for consumer financial products and services . . . [that are] fair, transparent and competitive.” Whoever interprets those high-sounding phrases is making law, not following it.
That’s why it’s all the more important to both shrink the power of bureaucrats and make them as accountable as possible. This week, Representative Lynn Jenkins (R., Kan.) introduced the Citizen Empowerment Act as a step in the right direction. It would allow any citizen to record his meetings and telephone exchanges with federal regulatory officials engaged in enforcement actions, and it would require that citizens be informed of their right to do so. Last year, federal agencies conducted more than 939,000 enforcement actions, including trials. That’s ten times the number of trials or similar actions that were held in federal courts.
It would also help if every rule, every edict, and every decision memo contained the names of the people responsible for its creation and execution. Some members of Congress are already drafting legislation to require this. Some names would be accessible to the general public. Others, such as those on decision memos and other similar documents, would be available to members of Congress, who currently have to pry them out of the executive branch with letters or oversight hearings. As a journalist, I’ve found that bureaucrats absolutely hate having their name attached to anything — they react to sunlight the way Dracula does. It’s time to help them overcome their desire for anonymity by making them responsible for their actions.
If we don’t, we will only have ourselves to blame if this country descends into what Alexis de Tocqueville warned could befall America: “democratic despotism.” Back in 1840, he warned of “an immense and tutelary power . . . [that] every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent.”
The lesson of the IRS scandal so far is that the despotism de Tocqueville feared is a real threat to our liberties, and one of the weapons we must use against it is to call out the bureaucrats who so frequently control our lives and insist they explain their actions.
— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.