The Internal Revenue Service, the federal agency almost everyone loves to hate, and the scandal surrounding it may have some significant traction, particularly because the IRS will be deeply involved in overseeing a major part of the Affordable Care Act, known unofficially as “Obamacare.”
A few news organizations have connected the dots, but not many. The IRS official mainly responsible for targeting conservative groups in the scandal, Sarah Hall Ingram, will head the office in charge of enforcing the health insurance requirements beginning in January.
Here is a partial timeline of what we know:
• Nearly a year ago, Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal S. Wolin met with IRS Inspector General J. Russell George about whether conservative groups had been targeted. Mr. George eventually determined they were.
• In April, the Treasury Department told White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler that IRS employees wrongly targeted conservative groups seeking nonprofit tax status.
• The information was shared with senior White House staff, including Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, who decided not to inform Mr. Obama because the investigation wasn’t finished until May 14.
Plausible deniability for the president? Perhaps, but what was going on was known at the highest levels of the Obama White House. Although Mr. Obama has condemned the IRS and sacked its head, he said he did not know about the inspector general’s report. That’s different from knowing about the scandal itself. That’s something the president needs to address.
In a rather bizarre story last week, The New York Times chastised the media, Rush Limbaugh and Mitt Romney for pushing other agendas that failed to give the IRS more scrutiny during the 2012 campaign.
Whatever the case, it’s time for the media to look at the connections between the IRS and Obamacare because the potential for abuse may be even greater than the outrageous actions toward conservative groups.
The IRS will oversee 47 tax provisions of the health care law. These include imposing penalties against individuals who don’t get insurance, determining how to provide subsidies to an estimated 18 million people who may qualify for government help and taxing people who make more than $200,000 a year on their insurance plans. The IRS said it needs a budget increase of $13 billion a year or so, including the addition of about 2,000 new agents. All of the above certainly scare me.
Many in the media think Obamacare is a good idea. But the public still has buyer’s remorse. A recent CNN poll found 54 percent opposed the program and 43 percent supported it.
Is the IRS an agency we can trust after its political motivations became known? It looks unlikely after congressional testimony, which included one of its top administrators invoking the Fifth Amendment.
What the IRS did was unconscionable. It’s important to look at the past, but it’s also important to look toward the future. The IRS and Obamacare provide a potentially toxic mix for abuse. That is what Congress and the media also need to investigate.
• Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20.” He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @charper51.