by Peggy Noonan
In all the day-to-day of the IRS scandals I don’t think it’s been fully noticed that the overall reputation of the agency has suffered a collapse, the kind from which it can take a generation to recover fully. In the long term this will prove damaging to the national morale—what happens to a great nation when its people come to lack even rudimentary confidence in the decisions made by the revenue-gathering arm of its federal government?
It will also diminish the hope for faith in government, which whatever your politics is not a good thing. We need government, as we all know. Americans have a right to assume that while theirs may be deeply imperfect, it is not deeply corrupt. What harms trust in governmental institutions now will have reverberations in future administrations.
The scandals that have so damaged the agency took place in just the past few years, since the current administration began. It is not Republicans on the Hill or conservatives in the press who have revealed the agency as badly managed, political in its actions, and really quite crazily run. That information, or at least the early outlines of it, came from the agency’s own inspector general.
But the point is that it was all so recent. It doesn’t take long to crater a reputation. The conferences, seminars and boondoggles in which $49 million was spent, including the famous “Star Trek” parody video—all that happened between 2010 and 2012. The targeting of conservative groups, the IRS leadership’s public lies about it, the leaking of private tax information to liberal groups or journalists, the abuse of donor information—all that took place since the administration began, in 2009. Just this week, an inspector general report revealed excessive travel spending by a handful of IRS executives in 2011 and 2012.
All of it has produced the biggest IRS scandal since Watergate. Which makes it the second of only two truly huge scandals to be visited on the agency in its entire 100-year history. (The IRS began in its modern incarnation in 1913, the year the 16th Amendment was ratified.) And Watergate didn’t kill the IRS’s reputation, only Nixon’s.
The effect in terms of public approval can be seen in the polls. Fox News, in May, compared its recent IRS polling with its polling 10 years ago. In May 2003, just under a third of all respondents said they had little or no faith in the IRS—a high number, perhaps, but a cantankerously American one. In May 2013, that number had jumped to 57%. Around the time of Fox’s 2013 poll, Gallup had 60% of Americans seeing the IRS as an agency that “frequently abuses its powers.” And Gallup had 42% of respondents saying the IRS did a “poor” job, more than double the figure from 2009.
One irony here is that the Obama White House, always keen to increase the reach and power of government, also seems profoundly disinterested in good governing. It is strange. The long-term project of liberalism involves encouraging the idea of faith in government as a bringer or guarantor of greater justice. But who needs more government if government works so very badly, and is in its operations unjust?
This White House is careless with the reputation of government. They are a campaigning organization, not a governing one.
You might think at this point the White House might begin to think cleverly and strategically. That they would very showily give the scandal their time and attention—really give it some priority. That they might show daily indignation, and see to it that the IRS is utterly forthcoming with Congress. That would have two effects. First, it would help the IRS recover if the public saw it being responsive, as opposed to speaking in the usual word salad punctuated with “We have no comment.” Second, it would help the Obama White House look responsive, responsible and actually interested in good governance.
Instead the president and his spokesman just run around and call the scandal phony. That’s their big contribution: It’s phony. It was better in the old days, 2½ months ago, when they feigned outrage.
You would think also the leadership of the IRS would, at this point, be a bit head-bowed—eager to deal publicly with the agency’s problems, to be responsive with Congress and, most of all, to demonstrate good faith after the lying that marked the early days of the scandal.
But that is not what’s happening. House investigators this week said they have in fact received less than 1% of the documents they have been asking for from the agency. The IRS itself at one point identified a whopping and rather intimidating 65 million documents that might be relevant to the tea-party scandal. To date—almost three months since the scandal became public—the House Ways and Means Committee says the IRS has turned over only 13,000 pages. And some of them were duplicates.
It’s gone beyond what staff aides were, last month, calling “slow walking.” Chairman Dave Camp said in a statement the IRS’s actions look “a lot like obstruction.” One aide said: “Patience is wearing thin.”
Meanwhile, investigations continue, interviews are ongoing. Congressional investigators believe they have picked up an unusual amount of checking in with and requesting approval and guidance from the office of the IRS general counsel. They also believe they are picking up an intense level of decision-making between that office and Lois Lerner, former head of the exempt organizations office. The committee is particularly interested in all correspondence and communications between the general counsel’s office, the Treasury Department and the White House.
An observer might fairly say that the IRS appears to be stringing the story out, that they are more preoccupied with damage control than finding out what exactly happened in the tea-party scandal. Perhaps the agency, and the administration, is thinking that if they string the story out it may disappear into the summer. Maybe its momentum will be broken. Maybe people will begin to think, when they see an IRS headline on page B-12, that they’ve already read that story. Maybe slowing everything down will take the steam out of the entire investigation.
That might seem a politically astute move—not governmentally responsible but politically astute. Letting the story go forward in slow dribs and drabs won’t help the IRS recover its reputation and begin to function in a healthy way, but it may limit immediate political damage to the administration.
But a slow walk of documents carries political risk. It may keep the story down, but it will keep it alive by keeping it from being resolved. Republicans on the Hill show no signs of losing interest. They seem anxious to stay on the story, for all the obvious reasons, both public-spirited and self-interested.
But they may begin issuing subpoenas. And if the story goes into the fall, and continues through the winter, perhaps even the spring, it will become an active drama within the 2014 election cycle.
Which would make the administration’s recent moves not only governmentally lacking, but politically maladroit.
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Peggy Noonan writes for the Wall Street Journal.