- - Monday, November 30, 2015

It’s a thought that should send a chill up every American’s spine: The Internal Revenue Service wants to increase its already-expansive powers.

Fresh off the IRS targeting scandal – in which the agency systematically brought its enormous power to bear to target conservatives for years – the IRS now wants new authority to ask 501(c)(3) charitable organizations to collect the Social Security numbers of donors who contribute more than $250 in a given year. For good reason, Americans are alarmed that the IRS is even considering this new rule.

The IRS has attempted to reassure the public by pointing out that this rule would be strictly voluntary – for now, at least. Legitimate concerns have been voiced about what safeguards would be in place to ensure Social Security numbers would not be mishandled, or hacked, or that the IRS would not use those personal identifiers to single out and harass donors to conservative charities. That fear, given the IRS’ recent history of abuse, is well founded.

From 2009 to 2013 when the targeting scandal broke, the IRS engaged in deliberate harassment of conservative individuals and organizations. IRS agents were instructed by their superiors to single out groups that used the words “tea party” to describe themselves, among other words descriptive of liberty-minded conservative groups. Those groups and individuals were then subjected to additional scrutiny, endless government forms and requests for backup documentation, and audits that in many cases lasted for years.

Throughout Congress’ subsequent investigation of this IRS scandal, several key figures at the IRS have blocked the truth from getting out. One of those figures, current IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, has been particularly obstinate in his refusal to comply with the investigations – so much so that in response, House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican, recently introduced a resolution to impeach Mr. Koskinen for failing to comply with a subpoena for evidence, failing to testify truthfully and failing to notify Congress that key evidence had gone missing.

The IRS targeting scandal had profound and far-reaching effects on the conservative grassroots movement, most notably on the tea party. I regularly hear from individuals who were audited or whose businesses were audited – people who had never been audited before, mind you – and I know hundreds of tea party groups went dark and disbanded, driven to give up by the IRS.

Beyond the damage the IRS has caused to the conservative grass-roots movement in this country, there is also the equally large, and at least as consequential, damage it has done to public feelings and perceptions of our government.

Gallup, one of the country’s leading polling institutions, has tracked Americans’ trust and confidence in the federal government since the early 1970s. Is it any wonder that its recent poll, conducted two months ago, found that only 38 percent of Americans held a positive view of the federal government’s ability to handle domestic problems? In fact, a mere 4 percent reported they had a “great deal” of confidence. (It is worth noting that even during the height of Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal, Americans reported higher confidence and optimism about the federal government than they do today.)

Now is not the time to indulge the IRS’s attempted power grab with this new proposed rule. It’s axiomatic in governance, as in life, that you don’t request new powers and responsibilities when you’ve already demonstrated you cannot be trusted with the powers and responsibilities you already have. Perhaps if the IRS recognized that, and sought truly to make amends for the damage it has already done, then Americans’ faith in our government could be at least partially restored.

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