In the wake of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq during the Bush administration, the default assumption of the media was that it was a direct consequence of White House policies. Those who were particularly Bush/Cheney deranged imagined that the vice president himself probably spent his recreational time personally torturing Iraqi prisoners. But even more thoughtful people accused the administration of creating the environment in which the abuse could occur:
Defenders of the administration have argued, of course, that there is no “smoking gun”–no chain of orders leading directly from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to Pfc. Lynndie England and her co-conspirators. But that reasoning–now largely accepted within the Beltway–betrays a deliberate indifference to how large organizations such as the military actually work. In any war, civilian leaders set strategic aims, and it falls to commanders and planners at successively lower levels of command to refine that guidance into executable orders which can be handed down to subordinates. That process works whether the policy in question is a good one or a bad one. President Bush didn’t order the April 2003 “thunder run” into Baghdad; he ordered Tommy Franks to win the war and the Third Infantry Division’s leaders figured out how to make it happen. Likewise, no order was given to shove light sticks into the rectums of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Nevertheless, the road to the abuses began with flawed administration policies that exalted expediency and necessity over the rule of law, eviscerated the military’s institutional constraints on the treatment of prisoners, commenced combat with insufficient planning, preparation and troop strength, and thereby set the conditions for the abuses that would later take place.
Similarly, while we still don’t know what the White House knew and when it knew it (and the president’s non-responsive answer to a question that wasn’t asked on Thursday not only failed to clarify the issue, but increased cause for suspicion), the administration certainly created an environment in which IRS functionaries might have thought it was their job to go after his political enemies. If they weren’t doing literally to them what the Abu Ghraib rogue soldiers were doing to individual Iraqi’s fundaments, they were certainly doing it figuratively. This is particularly true because by the very nature of their job, and the ideology of the limited-government groups, many of the IRS employees probably viewed them as their own political adversaries.
After all, one of the political goals of the 501(c)4 groups whose names contained the words “Patriot” or “Tea Party” was to simplify the tax code, if not to abolish the income tax altogether, an outcome that threatened the size and power, if not very existence of the “service” for which the IRS employees worked. It would be natural (and even simply human) for them to be suspicious of the motives of such groups, and to wish to thwart them.
Moreover, while all employees except two are career civil service, and not appointed by or directly accountable to the White House, that doesn’t mean that they are apolitical. As Tim Carney points out:
…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. (emphasis by author)
Add to that the revolving door between top IRS officials and Democratic staff positions that Carney also notes, and there will be a natural bias within the bureaucracy against groups and individuals who appear to be opposed to Democratic policies and goals. Now consider the multiplication effect of the intense vilification and calumnies against the Tea Party as racist, bigoted, homophobic John Birchers by much of the media over that time period. It would make perfect sense for a typical IRS employee to view them as a threat not just to their own job, but to the nation itself — they are enemies of the state. So when they claim that they’re not being political in giving more scrutiny to such groups, they probably believe it, just as many in the media are blind to their own partisan bias, because they are fish who don’t even see the water in which they swim.
Now, even with all of this natural tendency to do exactly what they did, a responsible administration would take care to set a tone from the top that such behavior was unacceptable. But “responsible,” at least in that sense of the word, has never been an accurate adjective for the Obama White House, and in fact its tone has exacerbated the situation, from the very beginning. Four years ago (almost to the day), the president made an unfunny joke about auditing people who merited his displeasure. A year or so later, in a similar “Ha ha” moment, he joked about sending predator drones after a pop music group. These sorts of things were occurring about the same time as he was exhorting Latinos to “go out and punish” their mutual enemies, and making it clear to Republicans that he was “keeping score.”
After the Supreme Court ruled against the administration in Citizens United (the case that some defending the IRS are claiming was the cause of the new scrutiny, despite the fact that it started before the caseloads began to increase), President Civility lectured them, a captive audience at the State of the Union speech, lying about the ruling to their faces (well, all right, to be fair, he may not have been lying — President Constitutional Scholar may have just been ignorant on the nature of the ruling). This undoubtedly made many in his government think that it gave them license to fight the ruling in the trenches against the sudden growth in enemies of the state it had spurred, since their president had said it was wrong.
Let me (as the president would say) be clear. I will be in no way shocked if emails are discovered showing that the White House actively ordered IRS officials to go after Tea Party groups, while green lighting his political allies. My only point is that, sadly, it wouldn’t have been necessary for them to do so.
When the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket was murdered in 1170, it wasn’t done at the direct order of King Henry II. It didn’t have to be. All it required was for the monarch to muse, aloud, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”
But sadly, while we have badly needed a better president for over four years, the real problem isn’t the men and women running the system, and it wasn’t a failure of the system — it is the system itself.
The Founders, in their wisdom, understood that the key to good government lay not in hoping that the governors would be angels, but to restrict its power, knowing that they would never be. We can fire employees, we can even jail them, but the problem won’t be solved until the power of the “service” is reined in vastly. Step one might be to re-ban government employee unions, including that of the IRS, because that’s part of the system we can fix, and this deserves that death penalty.
Ideally, of course, the income tax would be abolished entirely, but perhaps a simpler and (perhaps) more politically feasible solution would be to at least eliminate the corporate income tax, so that no one would have to justify their tax status to the bureaucrats. It’s not possible to prevent people, particularly people whose goal is power, from abusing it. All we can do is deprive them of it. Newtown didn’t justify any of the legislative attempts to disarm us that followed it, and even some who jumped on that bandwagon are now recognizing that we need control of government more than control of guns. But if this travesty of tyranny doesn’t lead to serious tax reform, and government reform, we will have missed a true opportunity.