Civil Liberties

05.17.13

The IRS Will Come for You Next, Unless Congress Acts Now

The scandal isn’t about politics—it’s about civil liberties. And Congress needs to make sure it never happens again, writes the CEO of conservative activist group FreedomWorks.

It’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you.

Nearly 500 groups applying for tax-exempt status have spoken out against the Internal Revenue Service for abusing its power, intimidating groups that were aiming to educate citizens on the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and their civic duty to hold government accountable.

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Kevin Lamarque/Reuters, via Landov

It began in March 2010, when an IRS manager in Cincinnati began a bureaucratic filibuster.

Applications that contained the phrases “tea party,” “government spending,” “government debt,” “taxes,” “make America a better place to live,” “patriots,” and “9/12” were isolated from other applications and subjected to extra paperwork and inquiries, delaying some approvals by as much as 1,138 days. Targeted groups were instructed to disclose hundreds of pages of private information, including the names of volunteers, donors, and even relatives of volunteers; résumés for each governing group member; printouts of websites and social-media content, and book reports of the clubs’ suggested reading materials.

This wasn’t standard protocol—it was opposition research. The IRS abused its power, bullying groups of citizens who didn’t have the financial and legal resources to fight back and violating their First Amendment right to assemble freely and criticize the federal government.

It’s the type of corruption that developing-world juntas aspire to, and not something the greatest constitutional republic in human history should be reduced to. It is unacceptable for a government agency to profile and discriminate against some citizens because of their beliefs, whether it is political, religious, or any other voluntary personal affiliation.

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President Obama recently axed the acting head of the IRS and promised "new safeguards."

This is not the first time the IRS has picked winners and losers for the benefit of a sitting president. In the 1970s, audits launched against President Nixon’s enemies were a startling component of the Watergate saga. But the current IRS scandal will be viewed as far worse in the eyes of history.

While Watergate was the product of a few bad actors, the malfeasants were caught, stopped, and brought to justice. The discrimination against the IRS’s self-categorized “Tea Party cases” was an agencywide practice that was known, discovered, and continued for years.

A report issued by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration this week took the first step toward exposing the extent of the IRS’s misbehavior. But this historic abuse of power and “unequal treatment under the law” raises fundamental questions about the sanctity of civil rights in America—and citizens deserve answers. 

Unfortunately, in the days since the IRS made its official apology, the executive branch has been a revolving door of excuses and half-truths.

If President Obama is not watching over the executive branch, then who is?

Lois G. Lerner, the IRS director of tax-exempt organizations, was briefed in June 2011 that political terminology was being used as criteria to sort tax-exempt applications, yet she insisted in her recent apology that the investigations were carried out without the knowledge of upper management. 

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters the White House counsel’s office learned about the IRS’s discrimination against small-government groups last month, on April 22—yet insisted that President Obama had no knowledge of the scandal until reading about it in the news with the rest of America.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew found a sacrificial lamb in IRS Commissioner Steven Miller, requesting his resignation despite the fact that he was promoted into the position in November 2012—well after the targeting started—and was scheduled to retire from his position next month anyway.

So who is really responsible? Who knew what, and when did they know it?

The day the story broke, Carney tried to deflect blame by claiming that the “IRS is an independent enforcement agency.” However, it is a part of the Department of the Treasury, which answers to the president. 

Democratic campaign strategist David Axelrod argued that the “vast” size of the federal government makes it impossible for the president to know what is going on beneath him in the executive branch.

If President Obama is not watching over the executive branch, then who is? 

Attorney General Eric Holder has ordered a Justice Department and FBI investigation into the IRS that will determine if the agency broke laws in targeting conservative groups for additional review. Unfortunately, the Holder Justice Department’s ethical and constitutional track record leave it with no credibility.

Congress needs to launch a full investigation to bring the perpetrators to justice or risk setting a precedent fatal to our constitutional republic—one that forfeits our civil liberties and empowers the feds to use bureaucracy to silence the voices of dissenting civilians. 

This is not a political scandal. The implications of unchecked abuses of executive power extend way beyond the battle for Congress in 2014. There are real public-policy issues at hand, such as making sure that citizens who try to obtain health-care coverage through Obamacare are not subject to the same selective abuse by unelected paper-pushers.

If the IRS can target and discriminate against one group of Americans, it can arbitrarily do it to anyone. This is an attack on the civil liberties of all Americans, and Congress needs to act now to make sure it never happens again.