WASHINGTON — Noted management expert and IRS Commissioner John Koskinen was apparently called out of retirement — like the Ted Williams of evasive, unapologetic bureaucrats — to destroy what is left of his agency's credibility.
At immediate issue is two years of subpoenaed emails from former IRS official Lois Lerner to outside agencies, lost in a convenient computer crash. The possible involvement of other agencies is one focus of a congressional investigation into the heightened IRS scrutiny of conservative nonprofit groups before the 2012 election.
In recent congressional testimony, Koskinen admitted that the emails were irretrievably gone; that the "backup tapes" had been erased; and that Lerner's hard drive was apparently destroyed in an aggressive act of recycling. With that settled, Koskinen expressed his "hope that the investigations ... can be concluded in the very near future."
It is a mix of arrogance and delusion that seems designed to incense Republicans. Koskinen had delayed informing Congress of the lost emails for months, even while assuring members they would be provided. "It was my decision that we complete the investigation," he said, "so we could fully advise you as to what the situation was." Translation from management-speak: We wanted to get our story straight before we advised you of anything. Koskinen complained about the breadth of subpoenas and the "piecemealing out" of information. Translation: We will provide you what we want when we want. "Every email," Koskinen assured the House Ways and Means Committee, "has been preserved that we have." Except the ones they don't have — and somehow snuffed out, tied to an anvil and thrown into the ocean.
Democrats were left to complain about a Republican "witch hunt" — while Koskinen set up a caldron, added some eye of newt and toe of frog, and hailed the Thane of Cawdor.
To review: After first blaming "two Dilberts in Cincinnati" (President Obama's words), an inspector general's report found that high-level IRS officials in Washington were involved in directing additional scrutiny toward tea party groups seeking tax exemptions. Lerner admitted as much, before taking the Fifth Amendment to avoid testifying before the House Oversight Committee. The House of Representatives held her in contempt. And now the evidence of possible communications between Lerner and other agencies (including the White House) has gone missing under suspicious circumstances. It could be a regrettable series of rogue operations, IRS management failures and technical glitches. Or they could be taking us for fools.
If there was any political motivation for this abuse of power, it is a form of corruption — the kind of thing Americans like to criticize in countries they regard as less developed. And the circumstantial evidence is strong. This wave of heightened IRS scrutiny came after Democratic senators, warning of possible abuses spawned by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, demanded additional IRS scrutiny of nonprofit political groups. Because evidence of political influence is both plausible and circumstantial, a special counsel is needed to sort out the truth.
Why does this matter deserve heightened scrutiny from the rest of us? Because crimes against democracy are particularly insidious. Representative government involves a type of trade. As citizens, we cede power to public officials for important purposes that require centralized power: defending the country, imposing order, collecting taxes to promote the common good. In exchange, we expect public institutions to be evenhanded and disinterested. When the stewards of power — biased judges, or corrupt policemen, or politically motivated IRS officials — act unfairly, it undermines trust in the whole system.
Trust in the federal government declined dramatically since the 1960s. Some Americans are now predisposed to believe that their government — the product of their own choices, channeled by durable, admirable institutions — can't be trusted with the collection of metadata, or with the use of drones (which might be employed by the president, according to Sen. Rand Paul, to kill citizens at cafes).
In the past, I've often criticized such attitudes as conspiratorial and destructive. A democracy needs respected, capable public institutions. No traditional conservative, in this sense, can be anti-government. We need government to do its job, to play its role and to justify the power and resources we properly cede to it. "Respect for its authority," said George Washington, "compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty."
But the IRS has managed to feed anti-government sentiments by inhabiting anti-government stereotypes. It has undermined respect for authority. And it doesn't seem even to understand the damage it has done.
Michael Gerson's email address is email@example.com.