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Abuse of Government Power — The IRS Targets Political Groups

IRS3Just to show my age and my fascination with history – the recent flap over the IRS targeting of Tea Party-affiliated groups reminds everyone in my age bracket (and above) of the legendary Nixon(ian) scandals during the Watergate era.

Since I have practiced law in DC all my life, I can be a little cynical.  The current IRS scandal is horrible – and certainly, the former IRS Commissioner’s repeated denials before House oversight committees is very troubling.  But the scandal does not add up to the depth and breadth of Nixon’s campaign against so-called Administration “enemies.”

Nonetheless, the IRS scandal reminds us all of the danger of government overreaching. Whether or not the top brass of the IRS was aware that staff was targeting “Tea Party” or “Patriot” groups by their names alone is unseemly to say the least.  Either way you cut it, if the leadership knew of the targeting or did not know, it reflects poorly on the upper reaches of the IRS.

This scandal will follow the typical progression of Washington-scandals – outrage on Capitol Hill, public hearings, and statements of outrage.  Heads will roll and possible criminal charges will be brought against the IRS staff responsible for carrying out this plot.  Even the former IRS Commissioner may be investigated for false statements to Congress.  He already has claimed that he had not been briefed by staff about this issue and had no knowledge that such targeting was occurring.irs4

Firings and investigations are the inevitable result.  Some witnesses will (and should) assert their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. Political opportunists will bang the drum of outrage against government power.  The last part of the Kabuki dance will follow.  The Administration will fire more individuals, prosecute them for violating the law, and institute executive reforms to prevent the tragedy from happening again.  Political opponents will then call for more drastic action and then launch legislation to address the issue in a more emphatic way then the Administration.

The IRS scandal is a reminder to all of us about how easy it is to abuse government power.  The IRS staff responsible for this scandal are at risk.  No one knows why the IRS staff started to focus on the Tea Party and other conservative groups.  It is unlikely they acted solely on their own.  Someone in the IRS reviewed and approved the plan.  That is the way government works.

IRS2The issue of whether the Tea Party groups are entitled to 501©(4) status as an organization interested in promoting “social welfare” is not a new or difficult issue.  The same status has been granted to many other organizations.

While the scandal certainly has created an uproar, it is important to keep it all in perspective.  The IRS has extraordinary powers and is always susceptible to undue political influence or abuse.  The Nixon Administration routinely relied on the IRS as one of many tools to attack their enemies.  The full scope of this scandal is not yet known.  If anyone in the Administration knew about the IRS activity, then the scandal will become even more interesting.  This should be interesting.

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