The IRS-Tea Party scandal continues to unspool, with former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman telling the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday that he learned of the improper political targeting in the spring of 2012, but told neither senior Treasury officials nor members of Congress.
Republican senators didn't sound convinced, according to the Associated Press:
"It's just implausible to me," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in an interview after the hearing. "Bureaucrats don't take risks by doing things that they know will get them fired, or get them disciplined by their superiors."
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said, "It's just hard to figure that there isn't more to this than they are letting on."
"How much did the political calendar influence when they disclosed this?" Thune said. "Obviously it was a presidential election year. Disclosure of something like this would have been explosive."
Explosive, perhaps, but not in fact surprising, given the history of the IRS. The nation's revenue collecting agency has been dogged by accusations of corruption, and cyclically consumed by efforts at reform, since the institution of an income tax to raise funds for the Civil War. And politically motivated uses of the agency's powers are far from unheard of.
So were politics at play in this most recent targeting? It appears we won't find anything out from IRS official Lois Lerner, a career civil servant who has headed the tax-exempt organizations division at the heart of the brouhaha since 2005. Various news organizations have reported that she is taking the Fifth and will refuse to testify before Congress because of the Justice Department's ongoing criminal investigation.
Meanwhile, the House Ways and Means Committee has just set up a website to solicit information from citizens connected to what it calls "The IRS Political Discrimination Investigation." ("Your story is critical to moving the investigation forward. Taking a few minutes to fill out the form below and share your story will allow the Committee to identify key facts and take action to deal with the failures of the IRS.") Dulling the partisan edge of the story somewhat is the fact that Shulman was appointed commissioner by President George W. Bush.
But special scrutiny of right-wing groups under a Democratic president during an election season is obviously suspicious, and there's precedent for skullduggery at the IRS. Here, with a hat tip to Slate and Time, are some lowlights of the agency's last hundred years.