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Congress drops the ball, again

Following my revelations last October in the Wall Street Journal of evidence the administration was using the Internal Revenue Service as its political attack dog, there was a flurry of concern and righteous indignation expressed in Washington.

Within months, Margaret Milner Richardson announced her resignation as commissioner of the IRS, the agency wrapped up its audit of my organization, the Western Journalism Center, and Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation announced it was launching an investigation of the charges that non-profits critical of the administration and its policies were being targeted by the IRS.

This was a serious charge. Not even President Nixon had succeeded in using the IRS to go after his enemies — though he tried. If such an accusation could be documented, it would certainly be an impeachable offense. It would be an Oval Office scandal of historic proportions. And, last winter when the committee undertook the mission, the probe had bi-partisan support, with both Rep. Charles Rangel, D-NY, and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-NY, signing on to an effort spearheaded by Rep. Bill Archer, R-TX.

So, what happened? Well, as we’ve seen so often with this Congress, it dropped the ball. The media weren’t beating the drums about the illegality and unfairness of politically motivated audits, so other priorities got the attention of members. While a report on the controversy was originally due Sept. 15, the committee never even began looking at the evidence. No witnesses were called. No interviews conducted. No documents requested. Now, Kenneth Kies, chief of staff for the joint committee, is saying he’s “hopeful” the probe will be concluded by the end of the year.

Don’t bet on it. My guess is that this is just one more Washington mega-scandal about to be swept under the rug. For starters, this committee was never empowered with subpoena power. Can you imagine getting to the bottom of such a sensitive and highly charged accusation without that authority? And how can you decide when an investigation of this magnitude is going to be concluded before it even begins?

Kies explained that his staff has been preoccupied with the “budget reconciliation process.” Potential high crimes and misdemeanors allegedly committed by the president, his staff and personnel at the Treasury Department would have to wait. Civil liberties violations and abuse of power at the highest levels of government are back-burner issues. Budget reconciliation is the priority of this “revolutionary” Congress. It’s enough to make you sick.

Inspired in part, no doubt, by this kind of congressional shortsightedness, one of the large non-profits currently being badgered by the IRS’ political inquisitors is beginning to fight back. Frankly, I was a little disappointed in the Heritage Foundation, the National Rifle Association and several other “big guns” of the conservative movement for not forcing this issue into the light of day — for not making this battle public. Now, Heritage is doing just that — at least for the purposes of fund-raising.

A July 18 letter to donors from President Edwin Fuelner Jr. declared Heritage “will not be intimidated” by the “nightmare of unfairness, time-consuming demands, irrelevance and frustration.”

Welcome to the club, guys. Been there. Done that. The Western Journalism Center answered the IRS’ question for a year. We got the full rectal exam. When it was all over, the IRS gave us a clean bill of health. To top it off, the agency launched an internal investigation of the field agent who directed the audit in the early stages.

And we didn’t stop there. Now, under the Freedom of Information Act, we have filed demands for all documents relating to our case — including any interoffice memos and directives from other government agencies. In other words, we’re keeping the pressure on. We didn’t back down. We didn’t waver. We didn’t change course. We didn’t move on to other priorities. We didn’t get sidetracked or let others set out agenda for us. We stayed the course. We followed through on what we said we were going to do. That’s a prescription for victory.

Are you listening up there on the Hill?