Administration scandals cross sacred lines


Any presidential administration should know better than to mess with the press or the Internal Revenue Service.

You don’t have to be a member of the Tea Party to be outraged over the IRS’s special and unwarranted scrutiny of conservative groups. I’m not, and I am.

For four decades, liberals have nursed hurts over the Nixon administration’s use of the IRS to intimidate, if not punish, its political opponents. The very first item in Article II of the House Judiciary Committee resolution impeaching Mr. Nixon speaks of the “violation of the constitutional rights of citizens” and the improper examination of “confidential information contained in income tax returns.”

One thing a second-term president wants to avoid is appearing in the same sentence with the word “Nixon.” The IRS forays during the Obama years, combined with the disclosure that the Justice Department obtained phone records of Associated Press reporters and editors, puts the administration in unusual peril.

Yes, the Nixon comparisons are superficial. No, history never repeats itself. Yes, last week was a very bad one for President Obama and portends rough weather ahead.

But these twin incursions into well-established rights — violations of the trust and sense of fair-mindedness that government requires, even if politics does not — underline two principles that should be sacred, whether the president is a Republican or a Democrat, whether the timbre of the times is conservative or liberal:

Never mess with the work of an independent press. Never use the taxing authority of the government for political ends.

No two institutions of American governance are more precious and deserving of caution from officials who — and here Republicans and Democrats are equally vulnerable to sin — believe they have reason to deplore the one and abuse the other.

For generations, Americans have been served by an independent press, which is one of the political and cultural distinctions of our civic life. And the entire functioning of our government requires that the power to tax — which both Daniel Webster and John Marshall equated in 1819 with the power to destroy — be deployed with antiseptic fairness.

So there are two scandals here, and all Americans should be concerned about them both. But there is a third scandal unearthed by last week’s events, and it comes under the familiar dictum, often attributed to columnist Michael Kinsley, that scandal usually isn’t about what’s illegal, but what is legal.

Here is what is legal and at the heart of this month’s contretemps: It is legal for 501(c)(4) organizations — conservative groups such as the various permutations of the Tea Party as well as many liberal groups such as Priorities USA — to have tax exemptions under the claim that they are primarily involved in the promotion of social welfare. This an elusive concept, often having little to do with social welfare and more to do with politics. Its virtue is almost always in the eyes of the beholder, if not the donor.

Here is the scary thing: USA Today reports that the IRS approved nonprofit status for liberal groups at the same time it was denying that status for conservative groups.

None of this is good for the Obama Administration, which otherwise would have had something big to crow about last week. Revised nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office figures put the federal budget deficit at $642 billion.

That marks a $203 billion improvement from earlier forecasts — and eerily, $203 billion was the size of 1981 deficit, expressed in today’s dollars, that propelled Ronald Reagan into office.

But that wasn’t the predominant discussion of the week. Instead, the talk was of how the administration breached some of the most sacred lines in American life.

First Amendment purists are right that attacking press prerogatives is an attack on American values. And maybe conservatives are right about taxes, because the type of flat tax they espouse could help take the IRS out of politics and make all of these exemptions meaningless.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Contact him at: