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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Is the IRS Scandal Worse Than Watergate?

Is the IRS scandal worse than Watergate? Of course, the question presupposes that there is indeed a scandal, and as Obama's new press secretary, Josh Earnest, informed us on Friday:

"The fact of the matter is after 13 months of multiple congressional investigations, including 14 congressional hearings, 30 interviews with I.R.S. employees, 50 written congressional requests and, as I mentioned, 750,000 pages of documents, there is zero evidence to support Republican claims."

"Zero evidence to support Republican claims"? Oh really? As observed by Michael Gerson today in a Washington Post opinion piece entitled "An arrogant and lawless IRS" (http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/michael-gerson-an-arrogant-and-lawless-irs/2014/06/23/8d6802d8-fb03-11e3-8176-f2c941cf35f1_story.html?hpid=z2):

"After President Obama blamed 'two Dilberts in Cincinnati,' an inspector general’s report found that high-level IRS officials in Washington were involved in directing additional scrutiny toward tea party groups seeking tax exemptions. [Lois] Lerner admitted as much, before taking the Fifth Amendment to avoid testifying before the House oversight committee."

Or in a nutshell, when a high ranking IRS official takes the Fifth before the House, only a raving partisan, intent upon obfuscation of the facts, would claim that there was no misconduct. How to respond to this misconduct? Gerson calls for the appointment of a special counsel:

"Because evidence of political influence is both plausible and circumstantial, a special counsel is needed to sort out the truth.

Why does this matter deserve heightened scrutiny from the rest of us? Because crimes against democracy are particularly insidious. Representative government involves a type of trade. As citizens, we cede power to public officials for important purposes that require centralized power: defending the country, imposing order, collecting taxes to promote the common good. In exchange, we expect public institutions to be evenhanded and disinterested. When the stewards of power — biased judges or corrupt policemen or politically motivated IRS officials — act unfairly, it undermines trust in the whole system."

A special counsel? In May 1973, Nixon's attorney general, Elliot Richardson, appointed Archibald Cox to the position of special counsel to investigate Watergate. Is the IRS scandal sufficiently momentous to demand the same treatment? Daniel Henninger of The Wall Street Journal writes in an opinion piece entitled "The High Price of Obama Fatigue" (http://online.wsj.com/articles/the-high-price-of-obama-fatigue-1403139022):

"The IRS tea-party audit story isn't Watergate; it's worse than Watergate.

The Watergate break-in was the professionals of the party in power going after the party professionals of the party out of power. The IRS scandal is the party in power going after the most average Americans imaginable."

However, the IRS scandal goes far beyond the "mere" targeting of average Americans. As Warren L. Dean Jr. states in a Washington Times opinion piece entitled "A scandal worse than Watergate" (http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/jun/7/a-scandal-worse-than-watergate/):

"[T]he Watergate burglars were not government employees. No government agency was implicated in the initial break-in. This time around, the misconduct is taking place in what may be the most powerful — and feared — government agency in the country. To ordinary Americans, it looks like the IRS spent taxpayer money to conduct a potentially criminal enterprise directed at the Americans who pay their salary. It was not only wrong, it was a betrayal of the public's trust in government. At this stage, the IRS scandal is far more serious than the initial Watergate break-in."

I agree with Mr. Dean that the IRS scandal is potentially far more heinous than Watergate. Moreover, there can be no avoiding the comparison between the missing minutes from the Watergate tapes and the alleged crash of Lois Lerner's hard drive, preventing access to her emails (the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, John Koskinen, testified on Friday that the IRS destroyed Lerner's hard drive in 2011), but will Obama appoint a special counsel to investigate the IRS scandal and put the matter to rest? Not a chance. In January 2009, Obama promised:

"Let me say it as simply as I can: Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency."

Transparency in the Obama administration? Obama himself must rely on newspaper reports to learn of wrongdoing involving his presidency, and it remains to be seen what will remain of American government credibility at home and overseas by the time he finishes his second term.

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