Republicans are increasingly strong in their insinuations that “the Obama IRS” has been involved in some kind of wide political conspiracy for the past few years. But a Treasury Department inspector general, still the expert of record on the agency’s targeting scandal, has said that the Internal Revenue Service story is one mainly of managerial incompetence, not partisan malice. Why?
According to the inspector general’s reconstruction of events, Lois Lerner, the head of the IRS tax-exempt department, found out in 2011 that members of her staff had been subjecting groups with conservative keywords in their names to extra scrutiny as they applied for tax-exempt status. At that point, she “immediately” ordered a stop to the practice and changed the department’s guidelines. Hardly the reaction you’d expect from an agent of a conspiracy to target conservatives, or of someone taking orders from puppet-masters above.
True, another form of targeting started up again subsequent to Lerner’s orders. But that suggests mismanagement on Lerner’s part — the inspector general’s conclusion — not some Obama administration plot. The evidence currently also shows that the top IRS leadership did not know about the targeting until May 2012, a year after Lerner found out and two years after it started. There is currently no evidence that the White House was involved at all until it heard about the inspector general’s investigation a few months ago.
Maybe the conspiracy here was so intricate that its architects carefully cut Lerner out of it. Or maybe, in anticipation of some kind of scrutiny years later, Lerner only pretended to stop the targeting in 2011, despite the inspector general’s finding that the reversion back to targeting happened “without executive approval.” But, of course, neither of those scenarios is at all likely. Given what we know now, the story that best fits the facts is that IRS employees lower on the food chain than Lerner, whether in Cincinnati or Washington, were involved in some unforgivably stupid behavior, and those above them failed to keep an eye on it.
Though there is no evidence linking them to the decision to begin targeting, the facts on the table do not fully absolve Lerner or her superiors in the IRS. They at least should have told Congress about the targeting as soon as they found out. Still, if you hear implicit comparisons between this IRS scandal and Richard Nixon’s corrupt bullying, for example, you should take such unmoored rhetoric for what it’s worth.