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I’m not much into Washington scandals. Generally, I think they tend to distract us from the fundamental problems that we face as a nation.
Sometimes it seems that our nation’s capital would much prefer to focus more on some general’s girlfriend than it would on things like balancing the budget. I’ve also learned that something that might be a front-page scandal to one party when it is in the minority is easily ignored by that same party once it wins a few elections.
But sometimes scandals are so serious that they merit our undivided attention. With that as backdrop, then, I feel compelled to write about the problems at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
By way of quick background: it has been established that the IRS targeted conservative-leaning groups beginning in 2010. Their applications for tax-exempt status were subjected to delays, and inquiries were made that go well outside the bounds of the ordinary practice at the service: the IRS actually asked groups about whether they prayed before meetings, and about the content of their prayers; one organization was only granted its tax-exempt status once it promised not to advocate for a certain position on abortion.
No one denies this. The only question seems to be who was responsible for making the decision to target those groups. (As a quick aside, there is also concern that Jewish groups, and even people adopting children, may have been similarly targeted, but that is outside the scope of this column).
It would be hard to exaggerate how outrageous this is: our government targeted particular groups for unfair treatment based solely upon their political leanings. This is just as revolting as targeting a group because of their race or their faith.
I am not one of those who subscribes to the belief that President Barack Obama somehow ordered or oversaw this abuse of power. Indeed, in the post-Watergate world of “plausible deniability” – where presidential advisors are very careful what they tell their boss – it wouldn’t surprise me if he knew very little about it. But that does not excuse responsibility.
Indeed, I can make a compelling argument that the president, while not directing the activity, certainly created that atmosphere in which it could thrive. In the weeks leading up to the beginning of the IRS program, the president repeatedly gave public speeches warning about conservative shadow-groups that might be fronting for foreign-controlled corporations. He even called them “a problem for Democracy” and a “threat” to our nation.
Who, then, could blame a well-meaning (and Obama-supporting) group of individuals at the IRS from thinking that cracking down on conservative groups wouldn’t only be acceptable, but possibly even praiseworthy? After all, the president considered them a “threat to Democracy.”
All of this is completely unacceptable. Yes, we need to figure out who was responsible, and they need to be punished. But beyond that, we need to ask ourselves how it is that an environment existed at the IRS that caused workers to think that this sort of activity would not only be ignored, but also perhaps even rewarded.
If there is one silver lining here, it is that many of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle in Washington are similarly upset. Good for them. They are able to see beyond the immediate political impact of this scandal. They know that if this sort of activity goes unpunished now, a future Republican administration might feel emboldened to mistreat MoveOn.org or the Sierra Club.
Americans have, by their very nature I think, a certain healthy skepticism of government. Indeed, our entire system of self-governance was founded on such skepticism. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have the right to trust our government. And, and the very most basic level of what it means to be an American, you have the right to know your government isn’t targeting you because of what you think, or what you believe.
That trust was broken here. And that should shake all of us to the very core.
Mick Mulvaney represents District 5 in the U.S. House Representatives.