CAPITOL HILL saw three more days of hearings last week about the Internal Revenue Service, none of which offered much more insight into the genesis of the agency’s troubling actions over the past three years. Who conceived the idea to target groups with conservative-sounding names for extra scrutiny as the IRS processed their applications for tax-exempt status? We still don’t know. How could that have been considered an appropriate option? And why did targeting resume a few months after a senior manager shut it down?
In the absence of answers, Republicans have begun to fill in the blanks with overheated rhetoric — for example, the possibility of a White House “enemies list,” as House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) said last Monday. Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.) and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) talked about the scandal originating in “Washington” or “Washington headquarters.” Mr. Issa called the president’s spokesman a “paid liar.”
The effect of all this, and quite likely the intent, is to imply that the White House gave nefarious orders to the IRS and now is hiding its behavior. In fact, as Post columnist Dana Milbank pointed out last week, no evidence has surfaced that the White House — or any political appointee, for that matter — was behind the targeting. At most, the interviews with IRS employees suggest that some employees in the IRS home office, not just those in Cincinnati, were involved in the targeting program.
To revert again to facts: A Treasury Department inspector general report found that the director of the IRS tax-exempt office, Lois Lerner, “immediately” stopped the targeting as soon as she learned about it. Somehow, those below her restarted the practice later, “without executive approval.” Those findings don’t accord well with a scenario in which someone senior to Ms. Lerner had been calling the shots. The inspector general’s read of the history is that it demonstrates incompetent management, not a political conspiracy.
The wielding of the government’s taxing authority in a political way is an unforgivable violation of the public trust. No one should minimize the sin or the damage it has caused. The public deserves to know who ordered these practices, who knew about them and why they were not stopped sooner. But in the absence of evidence linking anyone directly connected to the president with the IRS’s decision to sort applications the way it did, talk of “enemies lists” and similar hyperbole are inflammatory and counterproductive. Both Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s hasty criminalization of the affair and Republican conspiracy theories may make it more difficult to find out what exactly took place.