On May 21, liberal columnists Jonathan Capehart and Ezra Klein of the Washington Post and Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo were seen heading into the West Wing for a meeting. Just a few hours earlier, it had been reported that Lois Lerner, the bureaucrat at the center of the IRS scandal, would be invoking her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself in her testimony to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
We don’t know what was said at Tuesday’s meeting, but here’s an educated guess at what message the White House was pushing. The next morning, Marshall wrote a blog item about Lerner headlined “She Has To Go.” While the president can order a drone strike anywhere in the world, it seems firing Lerner or any of our two million career civil servants is beyond his reach. “I was chatting with people yesterday who said that civil service protections may make this extremely difficult or even impossible,” Marshall wrote.
For his part, Klein wrote an item for the Post the next morning headlined “Yes, heads should roll at the IRS.” (Five days earlier, Klein had been more laid back, opining, “The scandals are falling apart. . . . Things go wrong in government. Sometimes it’s just bad luck.” The liberal punditry is nothing if not creative when it comes to leveraging its diminishing credibility in defense of Barack Obama.) Klein, the head wonk in charge at the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, offered a detailed explanation of the Kafka-esque morass of civil service protections keeping IRS employees from being held accountable.
So Marshall and Klein, who have rarely failed to insist that an activist bureaucracy betters America, simultaneously acknowledged that federal employees can be malevolent and unaccountable. Why have liberal pundits suddenly come to this conclusion? This question brings us to the political climate that gave rise to the IRS abuses now belatedly under scrutiny.
The initial defense of the IRS’s conduct was that agents were just trying to tamp down the supposedly pernicious influence of money in politics—a leitmotif of the liberal punditry for years. In practice, however, the fear of seeing tax-exempt organizations engage in electioneering was highly selective. The IRS gave the rubber-glove treatment to hundreds of regional Tea Party groups with maybe a dozen members each. Meanwhile, groups like, say, the political action committee of the National Treasury Employees Union—which represents IRS employees, and is, like all unions, a nonprofit entity allegedly overseen by the IRS—spent $571,812 last year in political donations and gave 96 percent of that to Democrats. And though the NTEU isn’t affiliated with the AFL-CIO, all of the other federal employee unions are. The AFL-CIO spends tens of millions in every election cycle with almost no scrutiny.
In return for generous campaign donations from federal employees—donations you pay for out of taxes collected by, yes, the IRS—federal workers on average are now paid $133,000 a year in salary and benefits, and it’s nearly impossible for them to be fired. The political influence of government unions is undeniable.
The Republican temptation to focus on the short-term political implications of the IRS scandal is understandably great. But to improve their fortunes, Republicans need more than scandals—they need a purpose. If the White House wants to absolve itself of responsibility by insisting it has no control over the federal bureaucracy, Republicans could respond by moving to curb unnecessary civil service regulations and pushing laws that would diminish the power and influence of federal unions. And when the White House and its defenders shrug and say, “things go wrong in government,” voters might be impressed if Republicans worked with renewed purpose to set those wrongs right and to limit the size and scope of government.