- - Tuesday, January 28, 2014

There’s no mystery about why the three letters IRS strike fear into every heart. As far back as 1819, nearly a century before the income tax was imposed by Congress, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall observed that the power to tax is the power to destroy. The IRS has perfected and refined the power.

Christine O'Donnell, a Republican, ran for the U.S. Senate in Delaware in 2010, and her campaign was fatally damaged early on by leaks that she had “IRS problems.” Nearly four years later, Miss O'Donnell is still trying to find out how the IRS wrongly issued a tax lien against a house that was said to be hers, but wasn’t, just as her campaign began.

The lien was widely publicized and used by foes to discredit the Tea Party favorite, and it turned out to be a deliberate and dirty trick. Miss O'Donnell had once owned the house, but sold it in 2008. The IRS blamed a convenient “computer glitch” and withdrew the lien, but only after the damage was done.

The House and Senate committees that oversee the IRS want answers, and they’re not getting them. Miss O'Donnell says officials at the IRS, the Delaware state government and even the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration continue to stall and delay behind their stone wall.

“Unless this is all exposed, unless every level of inappropriateness and corruption is exposed,” she told this newspaper’s Ben Wolfgang, “I certainly won’t be the last person to be politically intimidated like this.”

Indeed, had the malefactors in the O’Donnell case been promptly and publicly exposed and punished it would have discouraged subsequent politically motivated IRS abuses, including the tortuous scrutiny of the applications of Tea Party and other right-leaning groups for tax-exempt status. The most recently abused applicant is the Friends of Abe, a group of Hollywood conservatives.

The National Organization for Marriage has sued the IRS to learn who accessed and leaked its confidential tax files, which included names of donors, to militant homosexual-advocacy groups. This illegally shared information was used to undermine Mitt Romney’s run for the White House.

The most effective barrier to justice in these cases is the tax code. The code prohibits with the force of law the disclosure of any information that would enable victims like Miss O'Donnell to learn what a congressional committee investigation uncovers. Tax law shields from public exposure even the worst willful wrongdoing by an IRS employee.

Under the law, the chairmen of the congressional investigating committees must remain silent about what they learn. This gives anonymous government clerks the power and authority to manipulate the political process with impunity. A well-placed Washington leak or two might clear up this Kafkaesque muddle.

Miss O'Donnell would have had difficulty winning in deep-blue Delaware, even without the abuse by the IRS. The federal tax collector has become a potent political weapon for the left on President Obama’s watch, and Congress must pull its fangs.