Ignatius: Big government "frighteningly impotent"

Really? Was the IRS impotent when it blocked hundreds of applications from conservative groups for tax-exempt status over three years while allowing applications from progressive groups to sail through? Was the Department of Justice impotent when it seized the phone records from multiple Associated Press offices over a leak investigation?  Not exactly; the only impotence was in holding people accountable.  David Ignatius explains that the “frighteningly impotent” aspect of the government isn’t the lack of accountability, but, er … the demand for accountability:


At a time when Congress can’t pass a budget and the president can’t win approval of any important legislation, the public is indignant about the threat of an overreaching, all-powerful federal government that uses the IRS and the Justice Department to harass its enemies.

President Obama hasn’t begun to fix the big problem of Washington dysfunction, but he moved Wednesday to respond to public anger and reposition his sinking administration. He fired the acting IRS commissioner, released a blizzard of e-mails on Benghazi and backed a shield law to protect journalists. It was fancy footwork in public-relations terms but not a reaction to what’s really ailing the federal government.

The crippling problem in Washington these days isn’t any organized conspiracy against conservatives, journalists or anyone else. Rather, it’s a federal establishment that’s increasingly paralyzed because of poor management and political second-guessing.

What should frighten the public is not the federal government’s monstrous power but its impotence.

Firing officials has its place in bringing accountability. What’s really needed, as these latest episodes show, is adult supervision of the bureaucracy. This requires senior officials who are properly sensitive to political issues. But such officials have become so afraid of seeming to meddle that mistakes happen.

“Mistakes happen”? It doesn’t appear that either the DoJ or the IRS were making “mistakes,” but taking deliberate action in pursuit of their own goals.  In both cases, laws may have been broken.  Shouldn’t that create some pressure for accountability?


In one sense, though, Ignatius is correct. Both the IRS and AP scandals show that big government means less accountability and more danger to liberty.  In my column for The Fiscal Times, I argue that the IRS scandal in particular teaches that lesson, and that their expansion of power under ObamaCare will teach us even more lessons about it in the future:

Americans who believe that the IRS should enforce its regulations neutrally already have plenty of reason for concern, if not outrage. They should be concerned about the fact that the IRS is about to get a lot more powerful through the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.

The law makes the IRS the enforcement agent for the individual mandate and health-plan acceptability, and that power can be perverted for political purposes.  As Byron York points out at the Washington Examiner, the IRS is also in charge of determining eligibility for Obamacare subsidies, which means they will have much more intimate knowledge of our lives than ever before:

“The law authorizes the IRS to share confidential taxpayer information with the Department of Health and Human Services for the purpose of determining those subsidies,” York reminds us. “In addition, the IRS will keep track of even the smallest changes in Americans’ financial condition. Did you get a raise recently? You’ll need to notify the IRS; it might affect your subsidy status. Have your hours been reduced at work? Notify the IRS. Change jobs? Same.”

Now consider what may happen when all of this intimate detail ends up in the hands of a politicized IRS, as happened over the last three years.  Newt Gingrich asked Monday, “Why would you trust the bureaucracy with your health if you can’t trust the bureaucracy with your politics?”

It’s a good question.  Undoubtedly, it’s one of the questions that a certain-to-be-revitalized Tea Party will be asking, especially since the IRS proved every warning the grassroots conservatives have about the dangers of big government.  This scandal has the potential to deliver a crippling blow to the cult of big government, thanks to the behavior of big government itself.


At Slate, John Dickerson says that Barack Obama may end up being a much better teacher on small-government philosophy than Mitt Romney ever could have hoped to be:

It must get confusing in the IT department at the Associated Press: Are you talking about the hackers who hacked our Twitter account or the Justice Department hackers who hacked our phones? Monday, the Associated Press reported that the Justice Department had secretlyobtained two months of records of phone conversations by its reporters. Meanwhile, theWashington Post revealed that the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups was more widespread than first reported. Someone at the IRS also leaked information about conservative groups to ProPublica. The Environmental Protection Agency may also have made it easier for environmental groups to file Freedom of Information Act requests than conservative organizations.

The Obama administration is doing a far better job making the case for conservatism than Mitt Romney, Mitch McConnell, or John Boehner ever did. Showing is always better than telling, and when the government overreaches in so many ways it gives support to the conservative argument about the inherently rapacious nature of government. …

If these scandals are indeed affecting the ideological landscape, this is bad news for liberals. It’s not just that the opposite ideology is getting some help from government bunglers, but the media is exacerbating the problem. Liberals believe that there is a role for government to play in mediating market failures, and there are plenty of stories of areas where the safety net is thinning as a result of sequestration—from cancer treatments to Head Start to Meals-on-Wheels—where government should step in. But those stories get lost in the scandal coverage of an administration, making it look like conservatives fundamentally understand something that liberals do not.

It’s not just appearances, but the truth of the behavior of this administration and its expanding bureaucracies.  Big government is not frightening because it’s “impotent,” but because it’s becoming the opposite, and trampling on liberty in direct proportion as to the extent it travels down that road.  The IRS scandal — and to a slightly lesser degree the AP scandal as well — demonstrates that clearly, which is why both are powerful lessons for small-government conservatism.

Update: Fred Bauer reminds conservatives that this issue predated Obama, and it will continue after his presidency comes to an end, too.


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