Hendricks County Flyer, Avon, IN

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Commentary

May 24, 2013

The dream and the reality

President Barack Obama believes in the public sector. He thinks it should be made ever more expansive and entrusted with ever more complicated tasks. Its unions should be powerful. It should be hailed by all the great and good, and attract the nation’s best and brightest.

This is how the president portrays the public sector at a level of glittering generality. Then there’s the reality of all that government that is too big for him to monitor, the workings of which he learns about only when he reads the newspapers and watches TV. There’s the incompetence, the dishonesty and the self-justification. There’s the spectacular unfairness and the obtuseness, all exemplified in the Internal Revenue Service scandal.

The innocent explanation of the affair is that the IRS’s Cincinnati office was so poorly run, it couldn’t manage to stop itself from discriminating against tea party organizations applying for 501(c)(4) status — for years.

As it happens, the recent reporting on the Cincinnati office portrays a dreary backwater with all the elan of your local Department of Motor Vehicles. But not discriminating against organizations shouldn’t be overly difficult. It doesn’t require any technical expertise, just a modicum of fairness. The IRS couldn’t summon it.

According to Lois Lerner, the director of the Internal Revenue Service’s tax-exempt organizations division and the poster-bureaucrat for the scandal, there was a flood of applications for 501(c)(4)s that necessitated the “centralization” of the cases. The targeting of the tea party groups wasn’t targeting at all, but an efficiency measure gone awry.

“They did it because they were working together,” Lerner says. “This was a streamlined way for them to refer to the cases.”

In fact, The Washington Post notes that the number of applications barely ticked up from 2009 to ‘10, when the practice of selecting tea party groups began. It also makes no sense to respond to an overwhelming influx of applications with multiple rounds of intrusive and extraneous questions and with years-long delays. That is a way to create a backlog, not to alleviate it. It is a way to create more work, not less.

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