President Obama has moved decisively to address the IRS scandal, asking for for and receiving the resignation of Acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller. Obama made the announcement in a press conference today and promised to do everything in his power to ensure that the inexcusable practice never happens again.
Furthermore, embattled Attorney General Eric Holder has ordered the FBI to investigate the IRS’ targeting of conservative groups. The FBI will be determining if the practice of using keywords as a filter constituted an unwarranted infringement of the civil and political rights of these organizations.
Holder said, “We are examining the facts to see if there were criminal violations.”
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) doesn’t seem to need an investigation. He said, ”Clearly someone violated the law. Who's going to jail over this scandal?"
Conservatives believe that should be President Obama and they expect “fair-minded and objective” liberals to agree. They have asked liberals to imagine if those keywords filtering conservative groups were replaced with "black," "gay," "women," or "Hispanic." They are outraged that the supposedly independent IRS is being used to advance the political goals of a sitting president.
These arguments appeal to emotion (something conservatives love to accuse liberals of doing), reflect a case of selective or prisoner-of-the-moment memory, and are without merit. When it comes to using the IRS scandal as justification for firing Obama, as the president himself said in relation to another fake scandal,“there’s no ‘there’ there.”
When conservatives ask liberals to imagine if the IRS targeted “blacks, Hispanics, women, or gays” liberals respond by saying why imagine it, haven’t we lived through it. The NAACP, Planned Parenthood, and Greenpeace were all subjected to IRS abuses during the Bush administration. And while none of the conservative organizations were denied tax exempt status, Emerge America, “a progressive nonprofit that trains Democratic female candidates for public office,” was. Salon reported “the group has chapters across the country, but in 2011, chapters in Massachusetts, Maine and Nevada were denied 501(c) 4 tax-exempt status.”
Those are just the tax issues. We need not run through the legacy of government abuse of power towards African-, Hispanic, gay, and female Americans.
Conservatives are justifiably outraged that the IRS showed bias. Even Obama stated, “The IRS must apply the law in a fair and impartial way.” But Obama didn’t do anything wrong and even if he had, it is certainly not without precedent. It is a time-honored tradition for presidents to use the IRS for political gain.
Mother Jones did a fine job of summarizing abuses of IRS power done at the behest of America’s past presidents. Franklin Roosevelt used the IRS to go after former Louisiana Governor and Senator Huey Long. Under Dwight Eisenhower, the IRS was used to support the FBI COINTELPRO investigation of Americans believed to be members of the Communist Party. Jimmy Carter was accused of using the agency to conduct an “unconstitutional regulatory vendetta” to strip private, independent Christian schools of their tax-exempt status. John Kennedy launched the The Ideological Organizations Audit Project to investigate the activity of conservative nonprofits and Bill Clinton was accused of using the agency to launch audits of conservative groups such as The Heritage Foundation, The National Rifle Association, and Judicial Watch. Ronald Reagan tried to have Mother Jones magazine shut down and of course there was the infamous Richard Nixon “enemies list.”
If one president uses the IRS for political reasons that is an abuse of power. When eight do it then it is a unfortunately a standard operating procedure.
Along with the FBI investigation three congressional committees have scheduled hearings with the key figures in the scandal. Lois Lerner, the IRS division head who has already apologized for the practice, and former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman, who was in charge at the time, are scheduled to appear at a hearing with the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. This is the same committee currently investigating the Benghazi incident. The House Ways and Means Committee will be holding a separate hearing with Acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller and the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, J. Russell George. The inspector heneral’s office issued the report citing the IRS for the inappropriate identification criteria.
In his comments, Boehner said, “Someone made a conscious decision to harass and to hold up these requests for tax exempt status.” That is true. The IG report has already given us the names – Shulman, Miller, and Lerner, not Obama. The president has instructed Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew to follow up on the inspector general report and implement the safeguards recommended in the report.
If the civil and political rights of these organizations were violated then someone should go to jail, and Obama is committed to holding the people responsible accountable for their actions. But Obama is not the one that gave this directive. He is looking to end the standard practice used by past presidents. He will not be the one going to the jail.