The real scandal at the IRS

Republicans had a better response to the last round of IRS scandals, in the 1990s. In 1997, congressional hearings revealed that IRS agents were being pressured to meet quotas for back taxes and penalties. Agents, sometimes anonymously, admitted that these quotas had led aggressive collectors to squeeze taxpayers for money they didn’t really owe.

A bipartisan commission recommended reforms to rein in such practices. The Clinton administration resisted some of the recommendations, but many of them ultimately became law in 1998.

Senator Rob Portman, the Ohio Republican who helped lead the commission as a member of the House back then, points out that these reforms played a role in uncovering today’s scandals. The 1998 law created an inspector general within the Treasury Department to police the IRS for abusive practices, and it was a report from this office on the targeting of conservative groups that brought the latest scandal to light. “You could argue that we would know nothing about this if not for the law,” Portman told me.

The earlier IRS scandals produced useful reforms partly because the Republicans who did the most to publicize them weren’t focused on pinning the blame on President Bill Clinton. They instead wanted to demonstrate the dangers of letting the federal government have too much power, and in finding ways to reduce those dangers.