Montgomery County, Md., is home to some of the most accomplished professionals in the nation: lawyers, accountants, academics and authors. That is why the reaction of its congressman to the Internal Revenue Service scandal is so important. He represents its residents and their interests in the integrity of the operation of government. Make no mistake — the administration of the tax laws is the administration of justice. It has been compromised.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen served as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for four years. Under his leadership, the committee filed a complaint with the now-infamous Lois Lerner at the IRS, who pleaded the Fifth Amendment before Congress and was placed on administrative leave. The complaint was filed against a conservative 501(c)(4) organization called Freedom’s Watch. This organization was made up of supporters of President George W. Bush’s war on terrorism. According to The Wall Street Journal, the committee’s complaint was followed by the initiation of a futile audit of the organization’s political activity. Then the IRS, in an unprecedented move, audited Freedom’s Watch’s donors as well, only to abandon the audits after they were exposed.
Mr. Van Hollen’s complaint took the form of a letter to Ms. Lerner dated April 29, 2008. It was not prompted by the Citizens United case, in which the Supreme Court upheld First Amendment prohibitions against government restrictions on political contributions by corporations, associations and labor unions. That case was not decided by the high court until January 2010. Accordingly, Mr. Van Hollen’s effort to blame the Supreme Court’s decision for the IRS targeting of conservative 501(c)(4) organizations seems odd. That is not all.
Mr. Van Hollen now says that it is very important to get Ms. Lerner “out of the way.” Having once tried to use her as political muscle, she has now become expendable. That politicians rely on implausible deniability and blame the usual suspects is nothing new, but the notion that low-level employees of the IRS conceived of the targeting scheme is ludicrous. The fact is that the employees of the IRS did what their superiors expected of them, and their superiors did what politicians in power, like Mr. Van Hollen, were asking them to do.
Mr. Van Hollen also blames the very tax laws that he and his colleagues were responsible for at the time. He now says he does not understand how an organization dedicated to social welfare can engage in political activity, even though this has been the case for decades. It is a curious theory coming from a man who seems to think the government should have a large role over the welfare of its citizens, including their health care. Nevertheless, he could easily find someone among his constituents who could explain it to him if he is confused.
Mr. Van Hollen needs to understand only one simple lesson from these events. It is a lesson Richard Nixon learned the hard way. It is that the work of the IRS is off-limits to politicians, including him. That is what his constituents expect. Anything else he may say is just an embarrassing excuse.
Warren Dean practices law in Washington, D.C., and is an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center.