WASHINGTON – A local Republican leader is calling for a swift government response to the unfolding IRS scandal, while his unlikely counterpart says the tax agency is in need of reform.
“I want to make sure there is accountability,” says Virginia Republican Rep. Rob Wittman.
“I want to understand exactly how this happened, who is responsible and to make sure those individuals are held accountable.”
The IRS apologized Friday for what it acknowledged was “inappropriate” targeting of conservative political groups during the 2012 election to see whether they were violating their tax-exempt status. In some cases, the IRS acknowledged, agents inappropriately asked for lists of donors.
On Tuesday, the agency’s acting chief acknowledged that his organization showed a “lack of sensitivity” in its screening process, but said those mistakes will not be repeated.
This is not the first time the agency has acted inappropriately, says Michael MacLeod-Ball, chief of staff at the American Civil Liberties Union Washington Legislative Office.
“The IRS has repeatedly abused its authority going back decades,” he says.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt used the IRS to attack industrialists he opposed, according to MacLeod-Ball. More modern administrations like those of presidents John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and even George W. Bush also employed the organization for controversial means, he says.
“As bad as this incident is, bureaucrats wouldn’t be able to do this unless the law allowed them to do this,” MacLeod-Ball says. “We have to change the law to make things more neutral.”
Part of the problem is a massive backlog, MacLeod-Ball says. The IRS has a legal responsibility to investigate all groups seeking tax-exempt status, but their criteria for determining who is screened and when can lead to perceived bias, he says.
One solution is to make the process more timely, he says, and to use more objective standards when singling out groups.
“The process is open to abuse because individuals get to then make determinations about the political behavior of these organizations,” MacLeod-Ball says.
If the IRS is found guilty of exercising a bias, Wittman wants to know who the responsible individuals are and if they were acting on someone else’s orders.
“If we lose trust in our government, then that cuts right to the basis of what this nation was founded upon,” he says.
The House Ways and Means Committee is holding a hearing on the issue Friday.