The Internal Revenue Service has been the object of jokes for decades. The one that sticks in my mind, because it's relevant, is Jerry Seinfeld's TV character talking about being called in for a tax audit.
“Have you ever been audited?” he asks Elaine. “It's hell. It's the financial equivalent of a complete rectal examination.”
What’s funny on television is not at all funny in real life. The power of the IRS to audit and investigate tax returns is nothing short of life-altering. The best summary comes from the Washington Post's Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas: "The story thus far seems both chilling and cheering."
It’s important to place this in context. The IRS targeted conservative political groups and a liberal Jewish group, among others. This “terrible breach of law,” as Sen. Harry Reid correctly called it, was uncovered by the U.S. Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.
Our inspectors general are part of a system of checks and balances developed by our Founding Fathers from their rich understanding of humankind. They had witnessed how power corrupted both kings and common people, and they devised built-in safeguards against corruption.
Injured citizens who wrote their representatives, who, in turn, began inquiries that were picked up on by the press, which began its own investigating, were all involved in uncovering this egregious overreach. That’s the cheering part.
The chilling part is that American citizens exercising the Constitution's First Amendment right to free speech could be harassed and intimidated by the IRS because of their opinions.
What needs to be thoroughly vetted is if these unwarranted intrusions were politically motivated (directed from outside the IRS), or if they were overzealous actions by bureaucrats who were blind to political implications.
President Obama fired the acting director of the IRS, the Department of Justice has opened a criminal investigation, and the president sent his own chill down the backs of those implicated during a short, televised speech: “I will not tolerate this kind of behavior ... especially in the IRS, given the power that it has and the reach that it has into all of our lives. ... It should not matter what political stripe you're from -- the fact of the matter is, is that the IRS has to operate with absolute integrity.”
An important part of the context of the IRS scandal is the knee-jerk partisan atmosphere in which it takes place. Congress has been gridlocked for years, but more important, recent polls show the American people are allowing themselves to become more partisanly divided.
In the May 7 issue of Forbes Magazine, “neuromarketer” Roger Dooley warns about something called “confirmation bias.”
“That's the tendency that influences all of us to put more faith in information that agrees with what we already believe, and discount opinions and data that disagree with our beliefs.”
In short, when we’re in a partisan mode, politicians can manipulate us easier than Jennifer Lopez winking at a guy. But if we allow that to happen, then every scandal will split the public into two camps, and each will believe their partisan bias on the scandal is right.
Dooley advises us: “Be aware of the danger of confirmation bias, and acknowledge that our judgment can be clouded by it.”
He further says that we should: “Aggressively seek out and understand information that disagrees with our existing belief.”
Let me challenge you — if you’re convinced Obama has nothing to do with the IRS scandal, or if you believe he directed it — to consider information that the scandal has a bipartisan origin, as well as a bipartisan solution.
The bipartisan origin: The IRS is an independent agency. Former President George W. Bush appointed the prior IRS director for his term of five years, and Democrats confirmed him. The bipartisan solution comes from Arent Fox, a business-oriented law firm that deals with the area where businesses and government regulations cross.
Two of their firm’s members, Craig Engle and Brett Kappel — a Democrat and Republican, respectively — are part of Arent Fox's bipartisan Political Law group. They created “numerous 501(c)(4) organizations — one of which was targeted by the IRS.” In an email that landed in my inbox, Engle and Kappel offered bipartisan advice on the IRS findings by Treasury’s inspector general, including one that “highlights a failure in management that simply disregarded the proper way to regulate applications.”
Here are three of their bipartisan solutions:
The IRS has things backward: It attempts to determine if an organization is overtly political before the organization has engaged in any political activity. "That is like the IRS telling you how much income tax you owe before you have earned any income."
Engle and Kappel recommend that nonprofits merely register with the IRS and automatically get the status of a nonprofit.
“Many are blaming Citizens United — but that is not right. What we need to do is see if people are complying with Citizens United. That’s two different things.”
I don’t agree with everything in this bipartisan solution, but I’m following Roger Dooley’s advice to set aside my partisan biases, and consider with an open mind a bipartisan solution to the IRS scandal.
Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News, and a contributing columnist to Ms. Magazine and O, the Oprah Magazine.