Why the IRS scandal is worse than the others

Bob Ehrlich says the targeting of conservative groups epitomizes what is wrong with an arrogant, overreaching government

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Happy Father's Day

In over two decades in politics, my least favorite political type was the unabashed "hot dog," that media-seeking missile who would happily sell his grandmother for a 30-second hit on the evening news. The most dangerous place in the world is between such an animal and a television camera.

This personality type is plentiful on Capitol Hill, where the most outrageous statements of the day are sure to lead that evening's headlines. After all, 5,000 Capitol Hill reporters have to report something of interest every day.

All this is by way of background as the enormity of the IRS scandal continues to hit home with the American public. If there ever was an opportunity to hot dog a crisis, this is it. And although a handful of members have sought to score political points in the short term, the ready availability for political showboating must not diminish the true gravity of this scandal.

Indeed, it's difficult to overstate all that is wrong about the targeting of American citizens for their political views. Herewith, five reasons why this one hits harder and digs deeper than the other Obama scandals of recent months.

Nobody likes the IRS. These are the public servants who conduct the audits that (can) lead to penalties, fines, or worse. Their examiners demand the supportive documents we too often disregard. (Where did I put that shoebox full of receipts?) Many of us get uptight just receiving correspondence from the IRS in the morning mail. Rarely is such correspondence of a congratulatory tone.

The IRS implements a tax code nobody really understands. It is a code that now extends to 73,954 pages of often arcane language. Fewer than half the population prepares their own taxes; it is estimated the private sector spends $193 billion annually on tax preparation. That's a huge amount of money going to compliance rather than productive, profitable pursuits.

The IRS is the primary agency charged with implementing Obamacare. Yes, the already unpopular agency must now regulate the increasingly unpopular "Affordable Care Act." And the last thing the American public needs to be reminded about is that Obamacare requires hiring of thousands of IRS agents to ensure that every individual, business and nonprofit in America is Obamacare compliant. (Oh, one of the other things an already angry public does not want to see is a smug IRS commissioner telling Congress he made 157 trips to the White House and the only one he can remember is the Easter egg roll!)

Reports of lavish spending at IRS retreats. In the midst of all the bad press, now comes evidence of scandalous amounts of money ($50 million) spent on high-priced hotels, conferences, and homemade entertainment videos that confirm the worst fears of all those taxpayers suspicious about how their hard-earned tax dollars are (mis-)spent in Washington, D.C. (Note to present and future Cabinet secretaries of both parties: Fox News always seems to find the goofiest comedic videos made for agency retreats. And they always seem to come to light when the agency is in hot water for other alleged sins.)

IRS targeting of conservative-oriented groups. And the granddaddy of them all: irrefutable evidence the Obama IRS targeted conservative groups for special investigation smack dab in the middle of a tense presidential campaign. And at a time the president and his surrogates were running around the country complaining about the rise of the tea party and other similarly situated organizations.

This was an "in your face" operation: groups associated with the major conservative causes of the day (fiscal restraint, tax reform, marriage, pro-life) all came in for extraordinary (and highly questionable) scrutiny by certain alleged "rogue" personnel within the IRS in Cincinnati, Washington state or both. Only time and future investigation will tell how far up the chain the miscreant trail will lead, but I'm betting this was not simply a basement operation confined to "The River City."

I will spare you the embarrassingly weak attempt at mitigation supplied by the reliably liberal Rep. Jim McDermott. Suffice to say the 12-term Democrat intimated that the ideological focus of the groups at issue was in and of itself enough to raise the interest level of the IRS. It took Rep. Paul Ryan about six seconds to take that high fastball over the fence. Sometimes, it's just better to sit there and take your medicine.

The irony of the IRS scandal is indeed thick: Groups that share a common distrust of the ways and means of the U.S. government were illegally targeted by ... agents of the U.S. government.

Remember, just because you're paranoid does not mean that everybody is not out to get you. Unless, it appears, you are a liberal Democrat ...

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "Turn this Car Around," a book about national politics. His email is ehrlichcolumn@gmail.com.

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