A Real Scandal at the IRS

The IRS targeting tea party groups is a scandal worthy of the name.

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President Barack Obama gestures as he speaks during a ceremony to honor the 2013 National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO) TOP COPS award winners in East Room of the White House, Saturday, May 11, 2013, in Washington.
President Barack Obama gestures as he speaks during a ceremony to honor the 2013 National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO) TOP COPS award winners in East Room of the White House, Saturday, May 11, 2013, in Washington.

Republicans are vowing to undertake an exhaustive investigation of the IRS scandal in which agency officials admit that employees targeted conservative groups for harassment. And they should.

Off all the so-called "scandals" the Obama administration's critics have alleged to discredit the president, this is one that very much deserves the moniker. For it is not just a case of malfeasance or financial mismanagement. It goes to a basic contract of trust between the American people and the federal government.

Most of us pay taxes of some sort (even if it's only payroll taxes, which are still a huge chunk of change). We don't enjoy it, but we hope the money is being used for the common, public good. We disagree over how the money should be used and whether it's being used wisely. But there has always been a basic belief that we are all pretty much anonymous and equal under the law – not in terms of how much we pay (which is anther legitimate issue for debate) but in terms of how we are treated by the IRS.

This trust is critical to the taxation system as a whole. If people do not believe they are being treated equally and fairly under the law, there will be more tax evasion. Since it's impossible for the IRS to audit every single individual and corporate taxpayer, a certain level of faith in the system itself is crucial to encouraging people to obey the law and pay the taxes they owe. When that trust is breached, the whole system falls apart.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

For the moment, we have been told that the disgraceful behavior – singling out groups that appear to be associated with the tea party movement and other conservative outlets – was limited to lower level employees and not known, let alone condoned by, upper-level officials. We surely hope this is the case, because a coordinated effort by senior-level officials would show an unforgivable abuse of power in the executive branch.

But taking their word for it is not enough. A thorough and aggressive investigation, followed by serious consequences for the perpetrators, is warranted. The taxation system is matched only by voting as an arena whose integrity is critical to our way of government. If people do not believe their votes are being counted fairly, they will cheat or not vote at all. If people do not believe they are being treated in an unbiased manner by the IRS, they will cheat on their taxes or not pay at all.

Democrats have complained about some sort of right-wing conspiracy to bring them down long before Hillary Clinton uttered the phrase. They're not helping themselves by giving their critics legitimate ammunition to do it.

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