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Showing the IRS some love after witch hunt

The probe into the supposed 'targeting' of conservative groups overlooks the fact that the tax agency does a good job despite its meager resources.

May 25, 2013|Michael Hiltzik

Today the IRS is still starved for money and personnel. Under a withering inquisition by Issa's committee last week, former IRS Commissioner Douglas H. Shulman pleaded that he couldn't be expected to know everything that happened in an agency with 90,000 employees. What he didn't say was that as recently as 1996, that workforce was 107,000. Has its workload shrunk in that period? (It's a rhetorical question.)

Every member of Congress treats the taking of potshots at the IRS as a perk of office. At last week's hearing even reliably intelligent progressives such as Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) couldn't resist the temptation to pile on with raised eyebrows and ostentatious expressions of disbelief at the efforts by witnesses to deliver reasonable answers to tendentiously prosecutorial questions.

Speier did get off the best laugh line of the day when she suggested that Shulman had responded too casually to congressional complaints about the treatment of tax-exempt applicants. She asked: "When Congress contacts you, whether it's 12 senators or members of this committee, doesn't it alert you to the fact that if there's smoke maybe there's fire?" Shulman was too polite to tell her the truth, which is that smoke on Capitol Hill typically emanates not from fire, but from smoke-making machines.

Speier eventually did get to the nub of things, which is that although the law says a 501(c)4 group must be "exclusively" devoted to social welfare purposes — that is, no politicking — IRS regulations say an applicant is still all right if it's "primarily" devoted to social welfare — that is, only a minority of its work amounts to intervening in campaigns. It was left to the Cincinnati staff to parse terms such as "campaign intervention" and "primarily."

If Congress desires there to be a bright line distinguishing (c)4 eligibility, it will have to draw the line itself. But plainly it prefers that these politically fraught decisions be made by civil servants who can then be hauled to the gibbet and hanged for their "incompetence" if things get hot.

When the issue of Congress' accepting this responsibility came up in last week's hearing, Issa ran for the hills: It's not his committee's job to write tax law, he said, but the Ways and Means Committee's. "The one thing we don't do is we don't pass tax law," he said, with a hint of relief.

This is how finger-pointing works during scandal season in Washington. Indignation is cheap, and therefore abundant. Governing? That's hard work, and therefore very, very hard to find.

Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at mhiltzik@latimes.com, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.

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