Federal officials used the power of the state to intimidate and harass critics of President Obama and the federal government. When the higher levels of the Internal Revenue Service learned that one office was inappropriately targeting Tea Party groups, these officials nevertheless denied it -- until they were forced to fess up.
If you needed another reason to distrust your government and oppose its expansion, the IRS just gave it to you.
Judging by available evidence and an inspector general's report released this week, the story here is not a Nixonian White House using all of government's tools to punish critics.
The story is instead one of government power so great that, even in the hands of nonpolitical career civil servants, politically motivated abuse is inevitable. And the ultimate problem is that our tax code and campaign finance laws put the IRS in the business of policing political speech. Politics inevitably comes into play.
The basic facts are these:
The Cincinnati office of the IRS, which covers tax-exempt groups for the whole country, created inappropriate standards to determine which nonprofits it would target for added scrutiny.
If your group set off one of Cincinnati's red flags -- say, by having the words "Tea Party" in your name -- the IRS would pummel you with probing questions, including asking about your donors' political intentions and your book club's reading lists, and threaten you with taxes and penalties if the agency deemed you to be overly political.
After Tea Party groups complained, IRS officials in Washington repeatedly insisted that there was no political targeting. The IG report suggests these officials knew otherwise and thus were lying.
White House spokesman Jay Carney dismissed the idea that singling out Tea Party groups was politically motivated. "The IRS is an independent enforcement agency with only two political appointees," Carney said at a news conference.
The Wall Street Journal set the record straight: "The IRS is many things, but 'independent' isn't one of them. It is formally part of the Treasury Department and is headed by the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, who is appointed by the President. The Commissioner is accountable to the President reporting through the Treasury Secretary."
And while it's true that the IRS is populated almost entirely by career civil servants, that doesn't preclude it being stacked with political partisans.
To see how meaningless the career-vs.-political distinction can be at the IRS, consider the case of Mark Ernst. He was H&R Block's CEO as recently as 2007, but when Obama took office in January 2009, Ernst joined the IRS as a deputy commissioner and helped craft new regulations governing tax preparers -- H&R Block and its competitors. How did this not violate Obama's revolving-door rules? "Mark Ernst is a civil servant at the IRS," an IRS spokesman explained to me. "He is not a political appointee."
But Ernst had spent decades in the private sector. He came in with the new administration. His stint at the IRS lasted less than two years. And he certainly was political: Federal Election Commission records show he contributed more than $49,000 to federal candidates and political action committees. His donations favor Democrats.
So, being a "career civil servant" doesn't mean you're making a career out of the job, or that you're not political.
In the past three election cycles, the Center for Responsive Politics' database shows about $474,000 in political donations by individuals listing "IRS" or "Internal Revenue Service" as their employer.
This money heavily favors Democrats: $247,000 to $145,000, with the rest going to political action committees. (Oddly, half of those GOP donations come from only two IRS employees, one in Houston and one in Annandale, Va.)
IRS employees also gave $67,000 to the PAC of the National Treasury Employees Union, which in turn gave more than 96 percent of its contributions to Democrats. Add the PAC cash to the individual donations and IRS employees favor Democrats 2-to-1.
The Cincinnati office where the political targeting took place is much more partisan, judging by FEC filings. More than 75 percent of the campaign contributions from that office in the past three elections went to Democrats. In 2012, every donation traceable to employees at that office went to either President Obama or liberal Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio.
The IRS officials whose names appear in the IG report are also Democrats with partisan histories. William Wilkins, IRS general counsel and one of the agency's two explicitly political appointees, is a former Democratic congressional aide, lobbyist (clients included the Swiss Bankers Association), and Democratic donor.
Joseph H. Grant, who ran the Tax Exempt and Government Entities Division that includes the Cincinnati office, is a former Democratic staffer on the House Ways & Means Committee.
Many dedicated and professional civil servants serve the IRS. But the recent revelations still aren't surprising. If you give people the terrifying power to tax and the right to police political speech, some partisans will abuse that power.
Timothy P. Carney, The Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.