In defense of Lois Lerner

The week that was as seen through the lens of the one and only Joel Achenbach.

Reading the commentary on the IRS hearings, it’s clear that the overriding rule in Washington opinion circles is that the moment someone says they have done nothing wrong is when the presumption of guilt hardens into an incontrovertible fact of guilt, with only the punishment left to be decided.


Lois Lerner, agonistes.

The corollary is that if someone exercises her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, she should be immediately incarcerated. To take the Fifth is tantamount to a confession, even though the actual transgression being admitted remains for the moment undefined.

When scandal is in air, someone’s gonna get hurt, and if it’s a civil servant who has done nothing obviously wrong other than be slimed by someone else’s incompetence, too bad! You were in the building when it happened!  That’s the same thing as having perpetrated the foul deed yourself. Right? Right?

Actually the IRS inspector general specifically states in his report that it was lower level employees who inappropriately targeted “Tea Party” type organizations for review of tax-exempt status. Management was faulted for not paying closer attention. (“… the Determinations Unit developed and implemented inappropriate criteria in part due to insufficient oversight provided by management.  Specifically, only first-line management approved references to the Tea Party in the BOLO listing criteria before it was implemented.”) Bad management is a problem, but not a “scandal.”

Here’s your basic congressional hearing in these tense times:

Congressman (to witness): What you have done wrong, and when did you do it, and why?

Witness: I didn’t do anything wrong.

Congressman: Then why are you here?

Witness: I was subpoenaed.

Congressman: A likely story!

Actual facts, now: Go to the videotape and watch Rep. Trey Gowdy (R.-S.C.) question former IRS commissioner Douglas Shulman. A classic moment in the Annals of Badgering.

Let us pause to consider what it is like to appear before a hostile congressional panel in a time when everyone is slinging clubs and hoping to make contact with someone’s head. It is precisely because of such moments -- when the powerful are poised to find someone to punish, or silence, and when the mob outside is baying -- that the Framers included a Bill of Rights that explicitly protected people from government overreach.

Conservatives and liberals alike should understand why someone like Lois Lerner might want to take the Fifth with a criminal probe going on and not a friend in sight. And you might understand why she would want to stare down a House panel and say, emphatically, “I have not done anything wrong.”

The people I know in government staff jobs and civil service positions are dedicated and honest. Most of them could make more in the private sector. You can’t buy one of these people a sandwich without running up against conflict-of-interest rules. Is our country being ravaged and undermined by out-of-control bureaucrats? Some people would say yes. But mistakes and misbehavior permeate all enterprises, and I’d like to remind everyone that in 2008 our friends on Wall Street managed --  with the help of exotic securities that they’d invented and sliced and repackaged and swapped to the point that no one knew what they were really worth – to CRASH THE GLOBAL ECONOMY. So it’s the bureaucrats we’re worried about?

We shouldn’t shrug when someone does something really stupid, nor should we give people the benefit of the doubt to the point that we lose the ability to mete out repercussions. But neither should we sacrifice civil servants for the sake of short-term political optics. In our high-stakes political wars, we shouldn’t let anyone turn their firepower  on innocent civilians.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Aaron Blake · May 24, 2013