Steven Miller took the fall. On Wednesday, President Obama received the resignation of the acting commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service in the wake of word about the agency acting egregiously in targeting tea party and other conservative groups for heightened scrutiny. Today, Miller will feel the heat as he appears before the House Ways and Means Committee.
No doubt lawmakers will explore why Miller in early 2012, serving as deputy IRS commissioner, told Republican senators that the agency wasn’t singling out such groups. Documents now show that he was aware of the problem.
Lois Lerner, the head of the office overseeing tax-exempt organizations, also has fudged on when she knew. Such lapses suggest the management deficiencies at the agency identified in the report of the IRS inspector general released this week. At one point, Lerner thought she had put a stop to the practice. Yet the report found she and others did not follow up sufficiently.
Eric Holder, the attorney general, has pledged an aggressive investigation. Such a course is required. The safe bet is, Republican lawmakers will examine under every rock. What shouldn’t be missed is that the IRS has been positioned more effectively since the dark Nixon years. The commissioner of the agency as conservatives came under close watch was an appointee of George W. Bush. So there are protections against partisanship.
John Boehner, the House speaker, leaped ahead in asking: Who will go to jail? His question actually invites the warning: Don’t lose sight of the larger trouble. No question, IRS officials put at risk what are essential: the integrity and credibility of the agency. Yet the agency also faced a huge task, processing the avalanche of groups seeking tax-exempt status, the door opened by the U.S. Supreme Court in its Citizens United ruling.
The tax-exempt status isn’t so much about a tax break. It really involves groups gaining the ability to engage in “social welfare” activities and to a lesser extent the rough-and-tumble of elections — without having to reveal donor lists. So it makes sense for the IRS to look closely. It just must be done fairly, preserving political neutrality.
To an extent, the IRS met the mission, liberal or progressive groups also facing the gantlet, one even failing to get its tax-exempt status, something that did not happen to conservative groups. Yet the most glaring error involves all the attention paid to small tea party groups when the greater worry stems from large organizations, such as Karl Rove’s Crossroads outfit or Priorities USA, driven by Obama allies. They appear all about winning elections and little about “social welfare.” Yet the IRS has shown scant concern.
If Washington wants to get serious about this mess, it will bolster the law to ensure the tax-exempt status goes to those truly deserving.