The Magazine

Our Masters, the Bureaucrats

A republic, if we can keep it.

Jun 24, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 39 • By JAY COST
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The targeting of conservative organizations by the Internal Revenue Service suggests that this risk is not insignificant. Career bureaucrats there—presumed to be above politics—unduly went after Tea Party groups, effectively denying them their constitutional right to equal protection, for years. All the while, Congress did nothing. The agency’s inspector general failed to blow the whistle in a  timely fashion. The media overlooked the many transgressions. And now, the bureaucrat in charge of the division, Lois Lerner, has lawyered up, taken the Fifth Amendment, and thus will slow the investigative process to a crawl.

This does not appear to be an isolated incident, either. Last month, National Review reported that a longtime colleague of Lerner has known for decades that she harbored suspicions of conservative groups. The Weekly Standard has reported that while at the Federal Election Commission, she harassed the Christian Coalition in a similar manner. Far from being reprimanded for this, she was promoted—during a Republican administration, no less! Recent reports, moreover, suggest that the Environmental Protection Agency has been making conservative groups pay Freedom of Information Act fees while waiving them for liberal organizations.

The Declaration of Independence vested all sovereign power in the people alone, while the Constitution established a government to manage that power in a republican fashion. While the people still swear fealty to the founding ideals, they have not put much thought recently into the problems the Founders tackled. As society has become more complex, the government has, too; Americans have not reexamined the structure of government, in an age in which it accounts for more than 20 percent of the national economy, to ensure it still reflects the republican spirit. In fact, there has not been a serious public discussion about the organization of the bureaucracy since the 1880s, even as it has doubled in size many times over. And so today, it is a vast enterprise of millions of workers, with precious little oversight from the people’s elected representatives.

It’s no wonder that some agency somewhere in the bureaucracy could have worked so perniciously for so long against the people’s interests. Perhaps the only surprise is that we ever noticed the malfeasance at the IRS at all. Were it not for the over-the-top questioning from the IRS—asking one group to pledge not to protest abortion clinics, another to reveal what books their members were reading, another to say what they’re praying about—all this might still be hidden in the shadows, unbeknownst to an overburdened Congress and an incurious media. And it remains to be seen what will be done about it, whether the bureaucracy, now under attack, has the resources and wherewithal to block oversight and prevent reform.

The IRS scandal should serve as a wake-up call. We can no longer take for granted the matters of republican governance over which the Framers obsessed. They rightly understood that a republic is a terribly difficult form of government to preserve. We wrongly presume that it is our birthright. As a result, we risk losing our inheritance. 

Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.

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