The revelation that the Internal Revenue Service had subjected tea party-oriented groups to special scrutiny represents the first major scandal of the Obama administration. It is especially unfortunate because the scandal will only deepen the hostility of tea party groups and others who see the federal government as an implacable foe.
The ability of the IRS to grant or deny tax-exempt status gives it immense power that must always be wielded fairly. The intent of President Richard Nixon to use the IRS to target his political enemies was one of the offenses that sank his presidency. President Obama said he learned of the IRS abuse only Friday. There is no reason to believe otherwise of an administration that so far has been remarkably free of scandal.
As of Monday the scope of the IRS abuse appeared to be broader than originally revealed. An inspector general’s report cited by The New York Times said the agency was targeting groups that seek “to make America a better place” or that “criticize how the country was being run.”
That broader range of targets is more disturbing even than the notion that the IRS was looking at tea party or “patriot” groups. It suggests suspicion toward dissent of any kind. If that is what the IRS was doing, it plays into the paranoia of the most extreme “black helicopter” fringe on the right, as well as stoking fears of big government by the anarchist, Occupy fringe on the left.
In fact, it is far-fetched to believe that the Obama administration, which had its roots in a grass-roots movement founded on dissent, had morphed into some kind of totalitarian monolith. More likely, the IRS campaign was a clumsy effort to come to grips with the proliferation of political groups that may have been skating toward the edge of the rules for tax-exempt status.
Nevertheless, the IRS is the agency Americans love to hate. It is the agency that collects our taxes. If you are a conservative, it is the grasping hand of tax-and-spend liberals, a great damper on free enterprise, an intrusive and arbitrary agent of big government at its worst.
Washington is already paralyzed by a hostility toward government that is almost revolutionary in tenor. An article in The New York Times on Sunday described the unprecedented effort by Republicans in the Senate to hold up Obama’s Cabinet nominees, including secretaries of labor and commerce and the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Added to this latest spasm of obstruction is the Senate’s long record holding up judicial nominees and other appointees carrying out the Obama agenda. It resembles a congressional coup against the executive branch.
Underlying GOP rejectionism is the premise that the Obama administration is a sort of tyranny that must be resisted at all costs. It is an attitude that dismisses rational discussion as weakness, compromise as futile. It is an attitude of fanaticism characteristic of revolutionary movements, and it is reflected in the paranoia of firearm fanatics who believe they must arm themselves against the tyranny in Washington.
The IRS scandal will only fan these flames, and Republicans in Congress will do the fanning. It is reasonable for the IRS to make sure that political groups are following the rules on tax-exempt status, but it counts as blatant bureaucratic malfeasance for the agency to single out specific kinds of political groups. Obama will have to get ahead of this scandal in short order or watch Republicans in Congress turn it into a long-running soap opera. They will probably do so anyway.
It is clear that heads will have to roll at the IRS (not in the revolutionary, guillotine-assisted way, but in the swift, severance-package way), and that Obama now must seize the initiative to ensure tax fairness. Wacky conservative groups, like wacky liberal groups, must follow the tax rules, and neither should have to feel that Big Brother is looking over their shoulders.
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