- - Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Sometimes, paranoia is justified.

In early November, Bill Elliot appeared on Megyn Kelly’s Fox News Channel show to complain about the rock and a hard place he found himself in owing to President Obama’s health care scheme. Mr. Elliot, it seems, suffers from cancer, but received notice that he would be losing his existing health care plan and would have to sign up as soon as possible for Obamacare coverage.

For most of the millions of Americans who have lost their insurance in spite of the president’s promises, new insurance has been an expensive inconvenience. But for some like Mr. Elliot, it is something far more serious. He could get the coverage he needed to continue treatment, but not at a cost anywhere near what he could afford or close to what he had been paying. As a result, he decided to forget the whole thing, abandon the treatment and, as he put it, “let nature take its course.”

That Obamacare had forced even one American into making such a decision is bad enough, but that’s not all. An insurance broker saw Mr. Elliot on Ms. Kelly’s show and decided to help. He persuaded his insurance company to continue paying for Mr. Elliot’s treatment without an increase in his premium. That good news gets even better: Mr. Elliot’s cancer has gone into remission, and his prognosis is good.


One would think everyone would be pleased at this outcome, but apparently, the episode didn’t gladden everyone. Just prior to Thanksgiving, Mr. Elliot and his broker got letters from the Internal Revenue Service informing them that they are being audited. The letters arrived on the very same day and made no sense to either man, but both are now preparing to face hostile bureaucrats from a government agency that has the power not just to harass, but to destroy. Are the audits retribution for publicly taking on the president and his minions, or are they a mere coincidence? Did both of their numbers just happen to come up on the same day — or did someone in the bowels of the government decide they were just the sort of people the IRS ought to be going after?

The question may never be answered, but recent events suggest that in this case, paranoia may be justified. It’s been more than a year since the IRS scandals involving selective, politically motivated audits of Tea Party organizations broke and IRS officials appeared before Congress like organized-crime kingpins to refuse to testify, lest they incriminate themselves. They fell all over themselves to shield their president, alleging famously that the scheme had been cooked up by “rogue” agents in Cincinnati.

To protect Mr. Obama, loyalists in the White House, Treasury and the IRS itself have sought scapegoats at lower levels who might be blamed for the clearly illegal targeting of groups and individuals critical of their boss while media friends argue that the whole “misunderstanding” can be dismissed — unless someone turns up a smoking gun implicating the White House.

What Obama supporters and critics alike don’t seem to realize is that bureaucrats running wild are both more serious and more dangerous than government employees following orders from above. When IRS Chief Counsel William Wilkins appeared before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last month and insisted he couldn’t remember in response to some 80 questions from committee Chairman Darrell E. Issa and other members of his committee, he was clearly trying to avoid implicating either himself or higher-ups in the scandal. He didn’t realize, though, that if it the orders didn’t come from him or someone else above, he was essentially arguing in his own defense that the whole IRS bureaucracy is rotten to the core.

The IRS has been used for political reasons in the past by presidents intent upon harassing or punishing their critics. Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered investigations into the finances of his opponents; John F. Kennedy joked in the Oval Office with close friends such as Ben Bradlee while perusing the tax returns of people such as J. Paul Getty, and virtually the entire Goldwater campaign high command faced audits after Lyndon Johnson’s re-election in 1964.

Then there was Richard Nixon, who tried to use the agency to go after his enemies and met with resistance both within his White House and from the IRS itself. His persistence led to one of the counts of the articles of impeachment voted against him in 1974. The words of Article II, Section I are worth remembering:

“He has, acting personally and through his subordinates and agents, endeavored to obtain from the Internal Revenue Service, in violation of the constitutional rights of citizens, income-tax audits and other income-tax investigations to be initiated or conducted in a discriminatory manner.”

There are ways to deal with corruption emanating from the top, and the consequences are ominous enough. But even if only a small fraction of the IRS‘ nearly 100,000 employees are willing to wield the power with which they have been entrusted for ideological or partisan reasons, all of us, and not just Mitt Romney contributors, Tea Party groups and critics of Obamacare, should be afraid — very afraid.

David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.