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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Two institutions we love to hate

Telegraph Editorial

There was something devilishly ironic about the scene that played out in a Capitol Hill hearing room last Friday, where Internal Revenue Commissioner John Koskinen testified before Congress about a group of emails his agency had apparently lost – including some that once belonged to Lois Lerner, the former IRS official who is at the center of a congressional investigation into whether the IRS improperly targeted conservative groups for scrutiny.

Lerner, who has since retired and refused to testify before Congress, was in charge of the IRS division that granted tax-exempt status to organizations. The suggestion from conservatives is that Lerner’s department targeted tea-party type groups because of their political leanings. ...

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There was something devilishly ironic about the scene that played out in a Capitol Hill hearing room last Friday, where Internal Revenue Commissioner John Koskinen testified before Congress about a group of emails his agency had apparently lost – including some that once belonged to Lois Lerner, the former IRS official who is at the center of a congressional investigation into whether the IRS improperly targeted conservative groups for scrutiny.

Lerner, who has since retired and refused to testify before Congress, was in charge of the IRS division that granted tax-exempt status to organizations. The suggestion from conservatives is that Lerner’s department targeted tea-party type groups because of their political leanings.

CNN called Friday’s session before the House Committee on Ways & Means “a knife fight of a congressional hearing.”

It was, in some respects, a clash of two institutions the American people love to hate.

Congress, personified by Ryan, started the year with an approval rating of just 13 percent, according to Gallup Politics, though that is up from the single-digit standing of last fall, when the approval rating for Congress trailed not only the IRS, but also witches and hemorrhoids, according to Public Policy Polling’s website.

And then there’s the IRS, which most people dislike just by virtue of its status as our nation’s tax-collecting agency.

Ryan, the congressman from Wisconsin who was Mitt Romney’s 2012 vice-presidential running mate, suggested that the loss of thousands of IRS emails was part of a cover-up. “Hard drives crashed. You learned about this months ago. You just told us. And we had to ask you on Monday.”

He accused the IRS of being less than forthcoming and told Koskinen that “nobody believes you.”

That almost sounds funny coming from a member of the political class, but his message that some believe the emails might have been “lost” – as in intentionally destroyed – was just the start of the attack.

“You can reach into the lives of hardworking taxpayers, and with a phone call, an email or a letter, you can turn their lives upside down,” Ryan said. “You ask taxpayers to hand us seven years of their personal information in case they’re ever audited, and you can’t keep six months of employee emails?”

Koskinen, the IRS chief, said it was the first time in his career that anyone had said they didn’t believe him, and accused Republicans of doling out information in piecemeal fashion to skew the facts to their political advantage.

Some Democratic members rode to the commissioner’s rescue as he underwent a world-class browbeating from the committee’s GOP members.

“Was the hard drive crash a conspiracy? No,” said Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Ways and Means panel. “The prevailing conspiracy in this matter is that of the Republicans’ desire to stir their base, tie the problem to the White House and keep up this drumbeat until the November election.”

In other words, Democrats want voters to believe that Republican questions about thousands of missing IRS emails falls into the same category as questions about Benghazi and the president’s birth certificate.

We don’t doubt that Republicans are trying to keep the IRS issue alive in the public consciousness to use it for political purposes in the upcoming midterm elections. Nobody should be surprised by that.

At the same time, Ryan has a point. Taxpayers undergoing an audit who attempted to explain away discrepancies by saying that information was lost because a server had crashed might well find themselves on the wrong end of a jail sentence.