What might have seemed like paranoia then seems positively prescient now. In an irony even President Obama's normally supplicant mainstream media can no longer ignore, an inspector general's report has concluded that the IRS has been targeting groups that sought to educate Americans about the Constitution since at least 2010, despite then-Commissioner Douglas Shulman's assurances to the contrary a year later.
According to various media sources, the Cincinnati-based IRS unit responsible for evaluating applications for tax-exempt status gave special attention to groups using phrases such as “tea party,” “patriots” or “9-12.” By June 2011, the unit had red-flagged more than 100 organizations, expanding the list to include groups focusing on “government debt” and “taxes” or critical of “how the country is being run.”
Whatever might have given them that idea?
Was it really just nine days ago that the president urged students graduating from Ohio State University to “reject these voices . . . that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity”? Today, such voices seem not only wise but overly polite, given the fast-mounting evidence that this administration is guilty of cover-ups that would have made Richard Nixon envious.
It's not just the IRS scandal, of course. Recent testimony before Congress has raised legitimate speculation as to whether faster action might have prevented the deaths of four American diplomats in Libya last year and exposed the administration's desire to mislead the public about the nature of the attack. But the IRS scandal resonates with the public precisely because it evokes memories of Nixon's infamous “enemies list.” When officials who have sworn to uphold the Constitution explicitly or implicitly view constitutionalists as a threat, no one's rights are truly secure.
The Fort Wayne 9-12 group is not officially affiliated with the tea party but supports many of its goals. The name refers to the perceived change in the nation following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when nine traditional principles and 12 values were seen to define what it means to be an America, Ross said – truly scary values such as God, country, family, honesty, liberty and private charity. But the local group declined to be part of the larger tea party or patriot movement, again for fear of drawing IRS scrutiny. It also declined to open a bank account, not wanting to list organizational or individual names that might attract regulators' attention. The group has about 250 people on its mailing list, Ross said.
What kind of country is it when such fear is proven to be not only rational but even prudent?
“When you're afraid of the government, there's a lot to be worried about,” Ross said with a certain degree of understatement.
The federal income tax code has properly been criticized for the degree to which politicians use it to manipulate supposedly free individuals' actions. But when the agency that is supposed to impartially interpret and enforce that code is exposed as vindictively partisan – an agency that is also going to oversee a huge new bureaucracy created by Obamacare – insult is added to injury.
As Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus said this week, “These actions by the IRS are an outrageous abuse of power and a breach of the public's trust. Targeting groups based on their political views is not only inappropriate but intolerable … the IRS will now be the ones put under additional scrutiny.”
Baucus – a Democrat – promised his committee will launch a full investigation, and Ross agrees. “They're trying to blame this on a few flunkies, but that's not true,” she said. “They should investigate this as aggressively as they did Nixon.”
Nixon, of course, resigned the presidency before he could be impeached for, among other things, “lying to the American people.” Forty years later, such a notion seems hopelessly na´ve. Perhaps that's because, as Ross noted, too many Americans have become like the proverbial frog in the pot – blissfully unaware of danger until the comfortably warm water becomes a deadly boil.
But recent events offer a glimmer of hope that maybe – just maybe – there's still time to put the heat where it really belongs.