Former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman has some explaining to do. An outcry from Shulman’s former bosses, the American taxpayers, should shame him into honestly answering five simple questions about his role in the most threatening scandal engulfing the Obama administration today.
It’s only fair that Shulman should answer to taxpayers. They face intense scrutiny from the IRS on their annual returns and pay a big chunk of their annual income on pain of criminal liability if they fail to comply with our insanely complex tax code that runs 73,608 pages long at last count — nearly tripling in size over the last decade.
Our tax system primarily relies on Americans’ individual compliance. Even though the IRS employs almost 100,000 people, the combined power of our federal tax collectors could not possibly investigate each of the 174,405,682 returns (give or take) that Americans file each year.
The agency’s reliance on individual compliance means fairness is a high imperative. The system depends on fairness. As a result, the IRS should never discriminate against targeted viewpoints or individuals. Nor should unelected bureaucrats or, for that matter, elected politicians use the IRS as a political weapon.
Yet that’s what happened, and that’s why the former IRS commissioner owes an explanation to law-abiding taxpayers.
After testifying to Congress over a year ago, in March 2012, that the IRS had not targeted conservative groups for delay, intimidation, or discriminatory treatment, Shulman later said that he learned, just weeks after he testified, that his IRS and his agents had indeed engaged in exactly the types of illegal and discriminatory practices he had disclaimed. Still, he failed to inform Congress or correct the record, even after 132 members of Congress had contacted him about it.
“So here is what everyone wants to know,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said to Shulman. “You’ve got 132 members of the United States Congress contacting you about this issue, 42 news stories about this issue in the time period in question, and you never checked it out. You never researched it. I mean, are you sure you’re being square with us today, Mr. Shulman?”
Shulman deferred to the IRS inspector general to investigate the discrimination and harassment. He deferred to Lois Lerner, head of the agency’s exempt organizations division, who pled the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer questions on the grounds that she might incriminate herself in testifying to Congress.
Shulman deferred to his successor, Acting Commissioner Steven Miller, who blamed the IRS for “horrible customer service” and “foolish mistakes.” Last I checked, taxpayers are not customers of the IRS. (Tell me again what we get from the IRS in exchange for our money?) In any case, the systematic targeting of groups affiliated with a particular political persuasion cannot be written off as mere mistakes.
Here are five questions that Shulman should answer:
(1) Why did you not raise the alarm and vigorously pursue the perpetrators who were under your authority upon learning that your agency’s employees had violated our citizens’ constitutional rights, considering that federal law requires the automatic firing of any IRS employee who assaults, harasses, or violates the civil rights of a taxpayer, lies under oath, or conceals information from Congress?
(2) In any of the 157 times that the White House cleared you to visit while the IRS targeted conservative groups, did you inform anyone in the White House that the IRS had systematically targeted for discriminatory treatment groups opposed to the administration’s policies? If not, then how, during any of those 157 occasions, did you satisfy your duty as the leader of a powerful federal agency to keep the president informed of relevant and material events?
(3) Considering that a presidential election would occur in November 2012, were you aware that the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups would chill their involvement and improve the election prospects of the sitting president, and do you believe that the IRS is supposed to assist a president’s re-election campaign?
(4) Did you not in fact say that you often told IRS employees that “the IRS represents the face of the government to more American people than any other federal institution” and that the IRS’s performance “can affect the way that the American people actually think about their government,” and did you not have a heightened obligation to ensure that the IRS did not abuse its immense power over the lives of ordinary citizens in unconstitutional, illegal, and discriminatory ways?
(5) Is it appropriate for one political party to use the IRS to silence opponents who hold different viewpoints on vital public policy matters and, if not, why did you allow it and why did you not raise the alarm when you could have?
* * *
Five questions. Nothing terribly complex. Downright simple compared to our 73,608-page tax code. The American people deserve some answers.
Gayle Trotter is an attorney and writer. The views expressed are her own.