Why the IRS Controversy is so Problematic for the Administration

It is a well-known and accepted fact that presidents have the ability to appoint friends and allies to certain positions in government agencies when they come into power. A natural corollary is that those appointees represent that president's general intentions while carrying out their duties. This, and not the more publicized sweeping bills which have to make it through oft-unfriendly legislatures, is probably the most consistent means by which most presidents exert the most influence.

Appointees carrying out the will of the person who appoints them is not only a corollary, but is mostly beneficial. While political battles about big-picture items have always raged in America, it is also true that many functions of government are less controversial, and having loyal foot soldiers in place to carry out the day-to-day activities required by those functions in a way that reflects the positions of the party in power in an efficient way allows for the business of the nation to be done without too much fuss.

That which is outlined above can also very simply be thought of as the spoils of war.

However, while having appointees in place carrying out the will of the president is widely accepted, it also seems like the arrangement could be taken too far. While forestry management, or commerce, or anti trade policy, or fisheries might be expected to be managed differently under different administrations, it would also seem problematic if any of those policies were managed differently for two different groups under the same administration.

If whites could chop down more trees on national forest land than blacks, it would not be acceptable. If only Protestants could go fishing in protected areas, and not Catholics, it would likely cause great push back. If only immigrants of Asia were allowed to trade certain goods, while immigrants of South America were not, it would seem very odd indeed. Any differences between different sets of religious, national origin, racial or political groups would be particularly stark if they occurred in the context of tax policy. While it might seem louche, people take money very seriously.

That is one reason why the news this week that Tea Party and Jewish affiliated non-profits have received more scrutiny from certain IRS offices than others in recent years - including in the run-up to President Obama's reelection - might seem so significant. Another is simply that most Americans have felt stress about money at some point in their lives. Indeed, even the 1% have probably had money-related stresses, even if they might not be recognizable to most people. Therefore, any situation which creates money-related stress has wide resonance and has the potential to lead to very visceral reactions from a wide swathe of people.

As far as I can tell, there is no direct link between the Obama Administration and the recently reported abuses of power in certain IRS offices. However, the Administration must proceed with caution. Regardless of political stripe, irrespective of whether people believe that tax policy is appropriate at any given time, almost no one enjoys dealing with the IRS. If the IRS is seen as protecting, or working for, the President, if having the IRS serve as his attack dog starts to be viewed as if it were the spoils of war, the damage will far exceed any minor benefit it may have created for him.

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