When the definitive work on The Rise and Fall of the United States is finally written, and it may not be that far off, there will be a full chapter on the IRS and other government agencies that have become massive empires in their own right, bigger than most of the world’s nations, and run with little supervision or restraint. There are obviously no checks and balances inside these agencies.
America got a peek inside that culture when Lois Lerner, the IRS director for exempt organizations, was called to testify before the House Oversight Committee. Giving the stunned lawmakers a classic example of how to have your cake and eat it too, Ms. Lerner read a statement denying any wrongdoing and then invoking the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution. “I refuse to answer on the grounds that it might incriminate me.”
So understand the logic here. She says she is innocent but she isn’t talking because she knows her answers will incriminate her. She led the division that targeted any prospective nonprofit that had the word “Constitution” in it but used the Constitution to hide her guilt.
Later, some of the congressmen were still reeling from her performance. Hadn’t she just waived her rights to invoke the Fifth Amendment by making a statement? She gets to testify without any cross examination?
Lerner’s performance on Capitol Hill sent a chill down the spines of more than a few journalists. If she would treat the U.S. Congress with such contempt, what must it be like for a taxpayer or charitable organization that has fallen into her clutches?
It is unlikely President Obama has been as ignorant of this scandal as he pretends. For one thing, his own brother was applying for an organization seeking nonprofit status. I have been working for years on a book about presidential siblings and interviewed 14 of them, including conversations with Obama siblings, and I can assure you that their every move is monitored and known by a family liaison at the White House.
Then there is the fact that Lois Lerner did not just casually fall into her job. She was recruited by Obama talent hunters. She is not there by accident.
Before her key position at the IRS, Lois Lerner had a history of harassing Christian organizations at the FEC. It was her performance here that would have made the Obama White House recruiters sit up and take notice.
Lerner’s performance on Capitol Hill seemed to take even the Democratic lawmakers by surprise. Some of them were armed with tough questions. Some were planning to brandish their credentials a bit, wanting to use the moment to show they are tough on both sides, notching up a little equity so they can fight for liberal groups who may someday be targets themselves. And others, Democrats and Republicans, came to the moment sincerely concerned about the flagging U.S. Constitution, held in open contempt before their eyes.
If Lerner can sternly rebuke duly elected U.S. congressmen, in their own House, one wonders what it is like to sit opposite her in her house, with the full weight of her power unattended by cameras and watching journalists.
German sociologist Wolfgang Sotsky writes that “absolute power is a structure, not a possession.” He was writing about the Nazi camps but the same phenomenon can apply in other societies where there is not accountability.
Nor are we blameless in this process. In writing about the Soviet Gulags, Alexander Solzhenitsyn says that “all classifications in this world lack sharp boundaries.” He was making the point that in a queer way the victims, too, are complicit in the horror. They become the trusties, the prisoners who have sex or do favors for guards and who sometimes end up running the camps.
The notorious abuses at American government agencies are a worldwide scandal. Immigration comes to mind. They go unchecked, unmentioned, because no one wants to suffer the consequences of reprisals and targeting. And so, too, we see the abuse of power and the corruption at the FEC, the FTC the FDA and all the others.
As Sotsky might tell us, it is not Lois Lerner; it is a system. Take her out and another will replace her. And even more troubling is Solzhenitsyn, who lays the blame at the feet of us all. Secrets, corruption, tyranny, injustice, they all abound because we are all complicit.
What we saw last week in that hearing room was a chilling face on the body of one of those agencies. Like an ugly white supremacist or Islamic terrorist stepping out of a website, here was a woman who makes her victims cower in shame, who laughs in their faces when they declare their innocence.
Like her victims, she was openly declaring her innocence to us. And then in open mockery she invoked the very Constitution she has targeted. “Screw you. Screw accountability. Screw the U.S. Congress. Screw the U.S. Constitution. Long live the IRS.”