by J.D. Tuccille
April 12, 1997

All the President’s Hitmen

It’s interesting to think that in writing this column, I could be increasing my chance of a federal tax audit. Well, “interesting” is perhaps the wrong word — given the near-proctological nature of the modern tax audit, “cold-sweat-inducing” is probably a better description.

Paranoid? Me? Why yes, I am, but that has nothing to do with these fears. Nope, I’m just going by recent news reports that the Internal Revenue Service has once again lent itself to the White House for use as the political equivalent of Murder Inc.

According to the latest reports, an unusual number of political organizations that usually find themselves in opposition to the Clinton administration have been or are being audited by the IRS. These groups include the Heritage Foundation, National Review, Citizens Against Government Waste, the National Rifle Association, the Center for Public Policy Research, the Progress and Freedom Foundation, the Western Journalism Center, and many more. Some of those who’ve been put in the hot seat contend that auditors admitted to political motivation.

But maybe the IRS should be given the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps Clinton’s enemies are just really bad bookkeepers. After all, there’s no proof that the nation’s tax collectors have become enforcers of the president’s will, although Congress has launched a probe of the tax agency to see if it really has been acting as a hired gun for Bubba and company. We should be hearing back on that inquiry sometime in September.

Even before a conclusive investigation, though, it doesn’t take much of a leap of lack-of-faith to suspect the IRS of dirty doings. The agency’s last official historian, Shelly Davis, resigned after allegations that she had leaked documents on past political shenanigans to an outside scholar. She was cleared of the charges, but the supposed beneficiary of those leaks, historian John Andrews, documented the Kennedy administration’s use of the IRS against conservative organizations (that’s right, Happy Camelot Campers, Saint Jack was as sleazy as the rest). Andrews is now pursuing similar inquiries about Nixon’s use of the tax agency against left-wing groups, demonstrating the not necessarily reassuring fact that the IRS has no political agenda of its own other than a willingness to be used as a bludgeon against anybody tagged as an enemy of the state.

Nerve-wracking, no? It makes me want to run through my 1040 form just one more time. Whoops! Too late.

Of course, we’re talking about a government agency, here, so what’s the chance of it keeping its nefarious activities on-target? Not too good, apparently. In February, a federal appeals court overturned a guilty verdict against an IRS-employed Klansman who was caught browsing through tax records. It wasn’t that he didn’t violate taxpayers privacy, just that there was no proof that he’d shared the information, and therefore no punishable crime.

Isolated incident? Ummmm. No. In 1994 and 1995, the IRS canned 23 snoopers, disciplined 349, and “counseled” 472 others. Counseled them to avoid freelancing, I guess. Remember, gang, if you’re going to misuse your vast powers, stay with the program.

The reformers are out in swarms, of course. The agency promises renewed commitment to its policy of “zero-tolerance” for tax-record snooping. (And why is everything “zero-tolerance?” Is this in contrast with slack, old-fashioned, a-little-tolerance? Or did they used to encourage such behavior?) IRS Commissioner Margaret Milner Richardson claims to be “delighted” with congressional investigations of IRS political hits. Everybody’s apparently real serious about proving that the bad stuff didn’t happen, or if it did, that it won’t happen ever again.

Sounds great, until you remember that this nonsense keeps on happening. Journalist James Bovard reports that as long ago as 1924, Sen. James Couzens launched an investigation of what was then called the Bureau of Internal Revenue. In response, the Internal Revenue commissioner personally handed the senator a bill for $10,860,131.50 in “unpaid taxes.” Couzens eventually won the battle, but you can imagine that he was distracted from his original plans. That was seven decades ago. What has changed since then?

Investigations won’t solve the problem and “zero tolerance” is useless. The fact is, the IRS is a monstrosity — it’s a massive repository of personal, and potentially damaging, information on the American people. It’s a ready-made weapon for ambitious politicians, and an irresistible temptation for any employee with the normal human complement of curiosity and grievances. Pass all the laws you want, enact endless safeguards; as long as it exists, the IRS will remain as both a peephole into Americans’ lives and the semi-official hitman for the party in power.

Now, smile for the nice tax collectors.

Ah well, and so much for the power of argument. So back you go to Full Automatic or to my home page.

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Copyright (c) 1997 Jerome D. (Il Tooch) Tuccille. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Il Tooch is prohibited. Mess with me and I’ll use your polished skull as a beer mug.