The corruption of the Internal Revenue Service is still under investigation, but the public has learned a lot already: The IRS targeted conservative and tea party groups for extra scrutiny and harassment, Lois G. Lerner tried to hide behind the Fifth Amendment to avoid prosecution for violating the rights of taxpayers, and the president of the United States assured one and all that there was not even a “smidgen of corruption” at the agency when he knew better.
What the public did not know until recently was that the White House requested and received from the IRS the tax records of 2,500 taxpayers for White House inspection. President Obama is not the first president to try to use the IRS against his enemies, but he is the first to do it wholesale. President Kennedy shared tax information with The Washington Post about Sen. Barry Goldwater and senior members of his 1964 presidential campaign team. They were subjected to grueling audits. President Nixon tried to get the IRS to go after his enemies when he faced impeachment.
Messrs. Kennedy and Nixon were, however, small-timers. There is no evidence that they misused the agency as recklessly as Mr. Obama. The appropriations package Congress must enact before going home for Christmas is crucial in part because it specifically prohibits use of the IRS in ways that everyone in Washington knows is wrong. When Mr. Kennedy shared IRS tax information with Ben Bradlee, executive editor of The Post, he told him that “it’s probably illegal for me to know this, much less to tell you.” He did it anyway.
Mr. Obama and his men know it’s wrong, too, and it takes court orders to pry information out of “this most transparent of administrations,” as he promised it would be. The information about the 2,500 returns became public because a group called Cause of Action filed a Freedom of Information request for documents in an earlier inquiry into the business affairs of the Koch brothers. When the IRS denied the request for documents, Cause of Action obtained a court order to get them. The government’s attorneys argued that to give them up would violate everyone’s privacy rights.
To argue that this is part of a cover-up is to argue the obvious. The arrogance of a government that abuses the rights of its citizens, ignoring specific laws to do so, must be held to account like everyone else, and if justice is done a flurry of subpoenas for a number of White House and IRS officials will follow soon after the Christmas holidays. Congress has disregarded oversight duties in this matter, and soon there will be a new Congress and the 114th Congress will have an opportunity to take these duties seriously.