The IRS Targeted Conservatives Because It Could


credit: afagen / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

The opening day excuse for the IRS targeting conservative groups requesting tax exempt status was that the IRS was facing an unusual influx of applicants. But that turns out not to have been the case. Applications for tax exempt 501 groups didn't surge in 2010. In fact, the number of applicants was down in every category from 2009. The new line on the scandal is that it was a product of poor management, incompetence, and a struggling, understaffed agency. Here, for example, is The New York Times, in a reported piece from yesterday: "Overseen by a revolving cast of midlevel managers, stalled by miscommunication with IRS lawyers and executives in Washington, and confused about the rules they were enforcing, the Cincinnati specialists flagged virtually every application with Tea Party in its name."

The IRS doesn't look particularly good in this version of events. But it's useful to liberals who want to argue that the problems stem from lack of resources—not a government that is too big, but one that is too small. 

That's somewhat complicated, of course, by the argument being made by folks like former White House adviser David Axelrod, who argued last week that the president couldn't possibly have known about (and therefore couldn't have any responsibility for) the actions of midlevel bureaucrats in a regional office.

I lean toward a version of the bigness argument that is a little less friendly to the administration than Axelrod's: Yes, the federal government is so vast that accountability has become extremely difficult. That's not so much an argument for absolving the guys at the top as it is for limiting the size of government—for making it less vast.

But I think that critiques that focus on the government's size miss an important factor. This isn't just a problem of bigness or smallness. It's a problem of power.

When public servants have the power to make life difficult for narrowly defined groups of people—their political enemies, or disfavored causes, or people on the wrong side of a national discussion—they'll end up using, and abusing, that power. It's all but inevitable, whatever the reason. Sometimes they'll do it because they're out to punish their foes. Sometimes because they honestly believe it's the fairest and most reasonable way to do their jobs. Sometimes because they're mean and petty people. Sometimes because they think they're making the nation a better place for all. Sometimes because they're instructed to do so from on high. Sometimes because they're not given enough instruction. Sometimes because they're just plain incompetent.

It's not that the reasons don't matter at all. They do. But in some ways the particular reasons miss the larger point. Power will find a reason. It always does.

That's the point that James Bovard made last week in a Wall Street Journal piece reviewing the history of IRS abuses. Bovard starts with a quote from David Burnham, who wrote a book on the revenue agency's scandals: "In almost every administration since the IRS's inception the information and power of the tax agency have been mobilized for explicitly political purposes." Roosevelt used the IRS to battle opposition newspaper publishers and protect political allies. Kennedy's IRS went after conservative tax-exempt organizations. Nixon's White House created special oversight for "all IRS activities involving ideological, militant, subversive, [and] radical" organizations. It eventually targeted more than 10,000 individuals. Under Clinton, conservative activist groups and publications were singled out by the revenue agency for extra special scrutiny.

The scandal in the news today may be primarily attributed to the incompetence and mismanagement of a relatively small cohort of mid-level tax bureaucrats. It may be confined to a few IRS offices. There may be no evidence explicitly tying the targeting to political motivations.

But focusing on the narrow particulars of this specific scandal misses the larger point. Which is that this is a problem of power—a problem that has a long history, and a problem that the IRS has fought to avoid fixing. As Bovard notes, despite a record of politically charged abuses, the IRS "has usually done an excellent job of stifling investigations into its practices" and "has a long history of seeking to intimidate congressional critics." Big or small, smartly managed or incompetent—what allowed the IRS to target conservative groups was that it could. And what the agency's history indicates is that when it can, it will.