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Thus far, the Obama administration has prided itself on the lack of scandals embroiling the president’s term in office, an achievement both notable and admirable given the size and aggressiveness of the government under this nation’s 44th leader. Political opponents have attempted to tie President Obama to misdeeds of Solyndra and Van Jones, but as of yet such endeavors have been futile. Unfortunately for both the president and the nation, this weekend’s big story that the Internal Revenue Service has unduly targeted Obama’s political opponents could and should leave an indelible mark on the president’s heretofore unsullied legacy.
The news that the IRS has gone after “social welfare groups” that have the words “patriot” and “tea party” in their names is incredibly damning, and it must not go unnoticed. While the person in charge of the IRS’s tax-exempt division, Lois Lerner, has passed the buck down to unnamed “low-level employees,” this ignominy allows Americans to hark back to the service’s shadowy and praetorian history as an agency frequently suborned to harass those with political agendas discordant to that of the Commander-in-Chief.
The tale of the attack dog IRS begins with the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose IRS chief, Elmer Lincoln Irey, not only used the agency to prosecute Al Capone, but also engaged in investigative activities against former Republican Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon and FDR’s chief Democratic rival, Louisiana Governor Huey Long. Of course, the most renowned and nefarious chapter in the IRS history book dates to Richard M. Nixon, who ordered the institution at his disposal to probe his 1972 electoral opponent, George McGovern. It should not be forgotten that Nixon’s abuse of this executive power became, famously, an impeachable offense.
When politically conservative groups began complaining about having to fill out unprecedented questionnaires during the presidential campaign, the IRS brushed off the allegations as paranoiac, asserting, “Yes, I can give you assurances…There is absolutely no targeting.” The New York Times applauded the increased scrutiny of conservative outfits in a bold editorial entitled “The IRS Does Its Job.”
Yet, the IRS’s job is not to “bury [its enemies] in time and money,” as the Tea Parties characterize the ordeal. The IRS’s job is to collect taxes. That the nation’s purported “paper of record” would lampoon those that unjustly suffered from the IRS qua NKVD is despicable. During the Nixon administration, the American populace benefited from the so-called adversarial press’s obsession with uncovering the transgressions of the nation’s Republican leader. Now, with a Democrat in the White House, the fourth estate seems comfortable with its position as indifferent to the president’s malfeasance. Both Obama and The Times need to apologize for this depravity.
In his commencement address to Ohio State University, Obama glibly denounced those who warn about government overreach: “Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems ... They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner.” He went on to characterize his critics as believing “that our brave and creative and unique experiment in self-rule is somehow just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.” Unfortunately, Obama has now given those opponents prime ammunition to continue making claims that his government actually cannot be trusted.
The admission from Lerner that the IRS has known of the service’s Tea Party targeting since 2011 demonstrates the extent to which the government can hide its ability to abuse its power. No one should overlook this imbroglio as run-of-the-mill or simply lamentable. When the IRS said “there were not partisan reasons behind this,” it was being mendacious. Yet, the reaction of an informed and guarded citizenry should not be partisan. As Harvard graduate Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once reminded us, “We should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expressions of opinions that we loathe.” Democrats, Republicans, Tea Partiers, and Occupiers alike should be in unison in their uproar. If the government can silence holders of one political ideology, there is no stopping it from continuing on to others. Both Nixon and Lyndon B. Johnson used the IRS to target proponents of civil rights and protestors of the Vietnam War. Unless you agree with the administration on 100 percent of the issues (which, if that is the case, I am dying to meet you) your political beliefs might put you at the mercy of a dark and shady mechanism for quenching your freedom of expression.
Various public officials have called on Obama to apologize. A mea culpa is only the first step. Hopefully, this situation can bring to attention the dangers inherent in a politicized tax collector beholden to our nation’s leader. During the Nixon days, people took seriously the threat of IRS instigation. It was taken for granted, despite his insistence to the contrary, that Nixon “was a crook.” While those inside the White House wants to deify Obama as its “North Star,” the potentiality of corruption in his administration must not be overlooked. President Obama must proceed carefully if he doesn’t want to end up with an eerily Nixonian legacy of disgrace.
John F. M. Kocsis ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government concentrator in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @jfmkocsis.
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