By Peggy Noonan
The Wall Street Journal
May 17, 2013
So many people are sad about America and cynical about its government. They don’t expect anything good to happen. They think certain poisons have entered the system and nothing can be done about it. Leviathan will not be cut back or tamed, Leviathan will go on abusing the citizen. People are all too willing to believe the Internal Revenue Service is hopelessly political in its judgments and actions. They are not shocked. They don’t think anything can be done, that the system cannot be corrected. They just grip the arms of the seat and wait for the weather to get worse.
But cynicism aids and abets deterioration. You’ve got to stay shocked. It’s disrespectful not to.
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It actually is shocking that the IRS appears to have become political and ideological in a way that is systemic. It is shocking that the president claimed he read about the targeting of conservatives just last Friday, in the newspapers, and today the New York Times reports the leadership of the Treasury Department was told the charges were being investigated a year ago.
And it has to be remembered that this is not your ordinary scandal. Your ordinary scandal is an embarrassment. Somebody did something bad and there’s an investigation or hearings. People are made to suffer for their missteps, if only in terms of notoriety and legal expense. Sometimes the innocent or mostly innocent are dragged in, too. But in the end it passes. Some new laws are passed or rules instituted. And we move on to the next scandal. In a government populated by humans there will never be a lack of them.
But the IRS scandal is different because it speaks of the political corruption of a major and crucial governmental agency to whose rules and regulations every American—everyone who has a job or a bank account, or who engages in a financial transaction—is subject. Most people will never have an interaction with the State Department or the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but the IRS deals with an intimate and sensitive part of your life, your personal finances. It is the revenue-collecting arm of the government. It is needed. It does necessary work. When that work is done well it is rarely noted and almost never celebrated. When it’s done badly it’s a terrible thing, because it means a citizen was treated badly or abused. But as an agency it couldn’t be more important to the national mood, the national atmosphere.
If we allow it to become politically corrupt that scandal will not pass, it will be with us every day.
* * *
Which gets us to soon-to-be-former IRS chief Steven Miller’s testimony today before the House Ways and Means Committee.
It gave a bit of a shock. He’s the head of an agency accused of major wrongdoing but his attitude was arrogant, nonresponsive, full of gamesmanship. His general tone? I am insulated, baby. You can’t touch me. You can make your little speeches and I’ll endure them with my best approximation of a poker face, but at the end of the day what can you do? I’m leaving. I have a pension. You can’t prove a thing It was so bad that by the end it occurred to me he might be a secret whistleblower who’s trying to enrage Congress into digging in and finding out what really happened to the IRS, and how, and when, and who did it, and what the rest of the administration knew.
Mr. Miller repeatedly suggested his agency hadn’t engaged in political targeting, it was just a matter of “mistakes” made “by people trying to be more efficient in their workload selection.” He said the IRS was guilty of bad “customer service.” He said he had never misled Congress when he testified, previously, that conservative groups were not being targeted: “I answered the questions as they were asked.” He stonewalled and nonanswered. Who started the targeting? “I don’t have that name for you.” This from the head of an agency in a government hell-bent to get to the bottom on this.
There was an interesting moment when Mr. Miller admitted under questioning that the IRS’s seemingly spontaneous public acknowledgement of and apology for the targeting of conservatives was not, really, spontaneous, but part of a spin operation. He provided insight into the new IRS mindset in this exchange with Rep. Tom Price of Georgia:
Oh. Well that would explain that.
* * *
So where does this go? Congress will have more hearings next week. Meaning, I suppose, that more IRS officials will be made momentarily uncomfortable. Also the attorney general, Eric Holder, says the FBI will launch an investigation. The president has said he doesn’t want a special prosecutor to look into the scandal because the investigations of Congress and the Justice Department should be enough.
But they’re not. An independent counsel, with his particular powers and particular independence, is needed.
The targeting of conservative groups and individuals by the IRS was a political operation that had political effects. We know this because only people with certain assumed political views were targeted and abused. No liberal groups were. According to today’s Washington Post, the Barack H. Obama Foundation, run by the president’s half-brother and named after their father, sailed through to tax-exempt status in a matter of weeks.
When a problem is political it’s best to have politically independent people investigate it.
Again, if what happened at the IRS is not stopped now, it will never stop. The next White House will come in and they’ll know they can do it too. And if they’re unlucky enough to be caught, they’ll have a have a few uncomfortable moments in Congress, and a few people who were going to retire in the summer will retire in the spring. And it will all go on.
We are at a point now where you can make a list of things that, all combined and allowed to continue, can kill America. This is one of them. Widespread belief that the revenue-collecting arm of the US government is hopelessly corrupt is one of them.
There is such a thing as national morale. Ours could use a boost. People have grown cynical. They expect nothing good to happen. They expect it all to be swept under the rug. They expect no one to pay a price. It is a matter of profound public need that the U.S. government show and prove that it is capable of correcting itself, that Leviathan can stop itself.