Equality under the law has been a fundamental tenet of American governance since this nation’s inception. A Civil War was fought to advance this ideal and thousands took to the streets to demand it. Reformers used this notion to justify their causes to the American public, knowing it would resonate. Today we still strive to ensure that all citizens are treated equally by their government. The Constitution enshrines this goal: Congress must impose uniform taxes, the First Amendment protects free speech, the Fourteenth Amendment protects equality under the law, and the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments uphold the right to vote regardless of race or gender. Equality under the law is paramount to the United States and, since 2010, the Internal Revenue Service has used its substantial authority to thrash this principle.
On Tuesday, May 14th, the Treasury Department Inspector General reported that the IRS, in violation of its mandate to apply tax law fairly, disproportionately flagged groups with “Tea Party” in their names, groups that addressed government spending, and groups that had statements that “criticize how the country is run” for review. These organizations’ requests for tax-exempt status were often significantly delayed with additional questions that extended far beyond the IRS’s purview.
Many conservatives claim that the Obama Administration encouraged the IRS to target conservative groups. Recent evidence has surfaced illustrating that senior White House staffers knew of the IRS’s practices earlier than they previously stated. Others defend the IRS, arguing that the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling on political activity forced the IRS to cope with increased applications and overworked personnel by screening for conservative groups. After all, most new applications were from right-leaning groups.. A mistake, yes, but not diabolical. Both sides have valid interpretations but they miss the point. The fact that some in the one of the government’s most powerful agencies disregarded one of America’s most sacrosanct principles, whether for political reasons or efficiency, should create outrage regardless of why it happened. The true media firestorm should be there, not in a political game of scandal and response.
The IRS is the sole body that can transfer wealth generated in the marketplace by hardworking individuals, whether CEOs or factory workers, to the government. The agency has the authority to shutter any business, bankrupt any political group, damage any charity. It is absolutely vital that an organization with such power promote uniform treatment. There is a reason that the IRS is designed to be as independent as possible: Americans may disagree about many things including taxation but those issues are resolved through the political sphere. The IRS is charged with enforcing the law, not creating it or interpreting it. This incident undermines the critical belief that, despite differences over a law’s creation, its application will be uniform. If the Obama Administration is found to have interfered in the IRS’s review process, then the consequences should be severe. If, on the other hand, the IRS resorted to such inappropriate tactics to cope with limited staff, then Congress should promptly allocate more funds to the IRS rendering specific timesaving targeting unnecessary.
The IRS scandal explains why it is so important to limit government power and, when government is necessary, to subject it to rigorous checks and balances. The philosopher David Hume wrote how, when designing government, “every man ought to be supposed a knave.” Our political institutions are not designed based on trust, they are built upon inherent mistrust. A government agency that grows too powerful such as the IRS is not subjected to forces that would prevent abuses such as the current scandal. How can the IRS be trusted to implement the Affordable Care Act in a manner consistent with equality under the law when it cannot even do so with its present mandate? Whether the targeting was politically motivated or not, the IRS scandal illustrates the importance of preserving the belief that the government applies law uniformly. Only a limited government with strong checks and balances can prevent agencies such as the IRS from having the power to target certain groups, political or otherwise. The IRS’s recent behavior should not divide us; it should unite us in outrage because our belief that we should all be treated equally under the law was threatened.