Congress and the attorney general's office must fully investigate the decision of IRS officials to target some conservative groups and punish those responsible.
President Barack Obama has called it "outrageous," members of Congress have promised to hold oversight investigations and Attorney General Eric Holder has signed off on a criminal investigation.
What's all the fuss about? Another disturbing case of highly powerful and politicized bureaucrats abusing their legal authority to target groups whose views they do not share with highly intrusive and illegal government scrutiny.
Specifically, it involves a decision by Internal Revenue Services officials to target groups perceived to be at odds with the Obama administration.
It's essentially an enemies list, like that from the days of former President Richard Nixon. One of the impeachment charges filed against him by a U.S. House impeachment committee alleged that the Nixon administration used the IRS to target and punish its political foes. Obviously, this is serious business.
Anticipating an embarrassing report by the IRS inspector general's office, officials attempted to get out in front of the scandal last week. Speaking at a public meeting, the IRS's Lois Lerner stated that a handful of rogue IRS employees at its Cincinnati office had engaged in this improper behavior, apologizing for the conduct and saying with a straight face that it was not motivated by political bias.
She was fibbing big time, as later events proved. The motivation in fact was highly political, with the only groups targeted having the words "tea party," "patriot" or "9/12" in their names, and the Cincinnati review was overseen by top IRS officials in Washington, D.C., and California. Further, there are indications that other organizations, including Jewish groups perceived to be at odds with the Obama administration's policy on the Middle East, also were targeted.
This is not a new story, although its confirmation is new. Various tea party-related groups have been complaining for months about inordinate delays caused by IRS scrutiny, to the point that former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman was asked about it at a congressional hearing and flatly denied any such thing. The Washington Post now reports that the commissioner already had been briefed on the harassment issue when he issued his strong denial to Congress.
Those conflicting facts prompted U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch to say that "the IRS was at best being far from forthcoming, or at worst, being deliberately dishonest with Congress."
Although using the IRS to target political opponents has been an intermittent problem for decades, it is no small thing. Indeed, it's the stuff of which authoritarian governments are made. Appointed or elected political leaders cannot be allowed to use taxing agencies, police agencies or regulatory bureaucracies to harass and silence their political opponents, and that's what was going on here.
It is reassuring that Democrats as well as Republicans are expressing outrage over what has occurred. But it remains stunning that high-ranking members of a large and powerful government bureaucracy would engage in the kind of behavior that's been admitted. Heads must roll, no matter whether that be through job discipline or criminal investigation.
Congress and the attorney general's office must conduct a full-scale investigation into what occurred, how it occurred, who carried it out and why. The punishment must be so severe that every bureaucrat, no matter how well hidden within the bowels of big government, will know the behavior at issue is not only inappropriate, but illegal and intolerable in a democratic society.
This is really a disgrace, the only saving grace being that it serves as a welcome reminder that trust in government to do the right things for the right reasons often is misplaced.