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What Happens When Government Gets Too Big

by Alex Gauthier, published
US Treasury Building // credit: mike_s_etc via Flickr

US Treasury Building // credit: mike_s_etc via Flickr

In the midst of partisan jockeying for a moral high ground surrounding the IRS debacle, neither side of the aisle, nor the media has gotten wind of the underlying issue. Each side has been busy formulating a narrative that serves their narrow, short-term interests.

The press has been quick to hype the issue to Watergate proportions. Despite the immediate agencies involved, there has been very little to substantiate claims espousing the kind of top-level corruption that accompanied the Nixon presidency. Meanwhile, conservative and liberal voices alike have been citing the scandal as vindication for their respective longstanding political agendas.

Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) authored an op-ed Wednesday in the Washington Post, stating:

"Oddly, some on the left are now arguing that the IRS scandal is reason to revive the Disclose Act. But if this scandal has taught us anything, it is that Washington’s ability to target individuals and groups is already too expansive. We should be looking at ways to limit, not expand, the government’s ability to target people because of their beliefs and the causes they support. And we should take a serious look at the culture that enabled this scandal."

Epitomizing the missed opportunity, Sen. McConnell places the blame on political opponents rather than on the inherent nature of bureaucracy. The fundamental threat of a government that exceeds its logistical capacity is exactly what results in the sort of regulatory excess seen by the IRS in this instance.

Conversely, Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) has pressed the need to pass his DISCLOSE Act, narrowing what should be a broader examination of government institutions, into an, 'I-told-you-so' moment. When looking at the report itself, it's clear what actually went wrong.

details the agency's "ineffective management 1) allowed inappropriate criteria to be developed and stay in place for more than 18 months, 2) resulted in substantial delays in processing certain applications, and 3) allowed unnecessary information requests to be issued."

On its face, the Treasury Inspector General of Tax Administration's report

These are not outgrowths of any partisan agenda. Ineffective management, poor oversight, and ultimately overstepping the law will inevitably lead to institutions like the IRS being left unchecked. The cold logic of institutional power blinds civil servants from seeing the broader goal of providing fair application of the law. They are left without a compass by which to gauge what constitutes 'doing their jobs' well or doing them period.

Yet, rather than finding a substantive middle-ground where 501(c)(4)s can balance their roles as both vehicles for 'social welfare' and political engagement, the conversation has devolved into who is right and who is trying to subvert the nation. Many 501(c)(4) groups play a necessary and robust role by engaging and educating citizens in the political process. Banning their electioneering abilities outright, as some have suggested, misses the point completely.

This is what happens when government gets too big. Not in the nebulous sense that has come to dominate common usage of the phrase, but in the sense that systems of power will seek to pervade themselves regardless of who is in the White House.

For more information about 501(c)(4) organizations, check out previous coverage on Money Talks:

IRS Targeting May Douse Enforcement
Priorities USA Funding Revealed
IRS Could Deny Crossroads GPS Tax Exempt Status
Dark Money Groups Cash In
FEC Struggles to Enforce Campaign Finance Laws
Senate Hearing Finds No Enforcement of Laws

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