President Obama’s first public spin on the IRS story came with an odd reminder. “The IRS,” he said, “as an independent agency, requires absolute integrity.”
Independent agency? Conservatives had fun with that; the Washington Examiner’s David Freddoso joked that “SEAL Team Six” was the only agency Obama would admit to running. But the IRS really is built to remain slightly distant from any given administration. The Nixon hangover is a doozy – the fear of a president ordering audits of his enemys arises from year to year, and haunted the 2012 campaign when a major Romney donor asked why the feds were so interested in him. So Douglas Shulman, the director who told Congress not to believe the rumors that conservatives were being investigated, was appointed in 2008 and left at the end of 2012. Lois G. Lerner, who runs the Exempt Organizations Division of the Internal Revenue Service and has apologized for being “bad at math,” was appointed in 2005.
That doesn’t change much about the story, though. Earlier today I talked to Rep. Mike Turner, who quickly prepped a bill that would introduce stiff penalties for IRS agent bias. “It just goes to the heart of our freedom of expression,” he said. If his bill passed, “no longer would it just be the IRS publicly admitting and apologizing. We believe if we make this a crime, we effectively stop of this kind of behavior.”
The legislation was clear enough; I wondered whether it might impede investigations of groups that really were shuffling money around using the pretext of charity. Turner wasn’t fretful about that. “This is not about stopping reviews,” he said. “This is about stopping a biased practice. We haven’t heard about the IRS learning of disturbing behavior and investigating that. We’ve heard about them picking groups to investigate. This needs to have a full-blown congressional investigation, and people need to be held accountable.”
Shortly after we talked, the House Ways & Means Committee announced that it would hold a hearing on the scandal.