A Den of Liberals

The IRS, like most government agencies, leans left. It’s just a fact of life.

Outgoing acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller (R ) and Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration J. Russell George are sworn-in during a House Ways and Means Committee hearing on the Internal Revenue Service targeting conservative groups on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 17, 2013.
Outgoing acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller (R) and Treasury inspector general for tax administration J. Russell George on Friday

Photo by Jason Reed/Reuters

Maybe it wasn’t the best idea for acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller to resign before talking to Congress. He appeared before the House Ways and Means Committee on Friday as a sort of human sacrifice; the first bureaucrat to resign in the scandal, and not even the one Republicans or Tea Partiers wanted. Miller had been a deputy commissioner during the years of scandal, and the IRS inspector general’s report didn’t tie him to any bias or malfeasance.

“I resigned,” he shrugged, “because as the acting commissioner, what happens in the IRS, whether I was personally involved or not, stopped at my desk.”

He wasn’t fighting for his job, which freed him up to be the most unsympathetic public servant not currently employed by a North Korean prison. Republicans insisted that the IRS had “targeted” Tea Party groups when they applied for tax exemption, because the Inspector General (sitting right there in the room) had said so. Miller kept quibbling with the word “targeted.” Republicans asked if the 501(c)(4) follow-up questions were criminal; Miller called them “bad customer service.” Miller confirmed that the Treasury Department was made aware of the letters during the 2012 campaign, without quite appreciating why this made Republicans turn such a vibrant shade of red.

“Nothing bad is going to happen to you,” said Rep. Tom Reed, a ruddy, low-profile former mayor from western New York.

Miller, for some reason, saw an opening for some snark.

“Nothing bad is happening to me, congressman?”

Reed snapped right back at him. “You’re getting paid for being here today, right?” he asked.

“Right,” said Miller, thoroughly defeated.

It was an ironic little exchange. For the moment, both of these men still work for the government. (Miller won’t actually leave his post until June.) One of them keeps his job by convincing conservative-minded voters in Corning, Orlean, and Pittsford, N.Y. to send him back to Washington. One of them was a civil servant. Nobody in politics appointed him to the job he’s leaving. The president can hire and fire IRS commissioners, but the people below him—the people fingered in the IG report, from D.C. to the fabled Cincinnati office—work their way up the ladder regardless of who the president is.

In theory, the civil-servant structure should make an organization less prone to an eruption of bias or of hive-mind behavior. But that’s not how it works. Liberals are more likely to enter the civil service, and to stick to it, than conservatives are. And why not? Conservatives want to shrink the size of government; Republicans have negotiated deals federally, and in the states, that slashed or froze the size of the bureaucracies. Ron Swanson aside, the public sector is no place for a libertarian.

Every single number proves this. Tim Carney has collected the campaign finance figures for IRS employees nationally and in the Cincinnati office. In the past three election cycles, IRS workers donated $247,000 to Democrats and $145,000 to Republicans. In Ohio, the number was skewed even further—75 percent to Democrats. According to a 2011 Gallup poll, around 40 percent of unionized federal employees identified as Democrats; only 27 percent identified as Republicans. State and local government employees are far more likely to be Democrats than Republicans.

If you check the timing of that poll, you realize something about how obvious this all is. Gallup went into the field to quiz bureaucrats because Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was rolling back collective bargaining rights for state employees. Doing so, as Republicans knew, would weaken a constituency that was inclined to vote for Democrats after filling their campaign accounts.

Now, does that excuse the IRS’s behavior in what Tom Reed called “Tea Party-targeting-gate?” No. It explains the behavior. In the IG report, you encounter bureaucrats presented with a challenge—“some organizations were classified as 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations but operated like political organizations”—and responded by drafting a “Be on the Look-Out” (or BOLO) memo with some anthropological advice about conservatives. Any application with “Tea Party,” “Patriots,” or “9/12 Project” in the name was flagged, as was referring to “government spending, government debt or taxes.” And this, as Doug Donovan reported, was before the surge in 501 applications really got going.

Based on what we know about the sort of people who aspire to become IRS commissioners, how much direct knowledge did they probably have about the conservative movement? How much did they fear it? So far in this story, Republicans have raced to find answers tying low-level IRS behavior to directives from the Obama administration, or table-pounding from Democrats who were worried about 501s like American Crossroads or Americans for Prosperity. But you don’t need to make that leap to explain why civil servants working for a tax-collection agency—the very heart of the Leviathan—might have been extra-skeptical of conservative groups.

Republicans have been clever in their response to all that. Led by Rep. Tom Price in the House and Sen. Dean Heller in the Senate, they’ve called for the IRS to be stopped from enforcing “Obamacare” regulations. They received a remarkable gift horse on Thursday, when—after six days!—ABC News noticed that the former director of the IRS’s tax exempt division, Sarah Hall Ingram, was the current director of Affordable Care Act enforcement. By Friday morning, conservatives were asking Hall Ingram to be fired. Let’s say that her superior did let her go. Her likely replacement, the sort of person who’d spent enough time in the bureaucracy to be qualified, would be someone committed to the health of the state. What Republicans need, in the long run, is either a much-reduced government or a surge of civil-servant Ron Swansons.