The Enduring Legend Of The Bureaucrat Whisperer

The Wall Street Journal opinion page is turning into the go-to source for documenting President Obama's supernatural influence over the thoughts and actions of IRS employees. Reagan DOJ veterans David Rivkin and Lee Casey wrote a May 21 Journal op-ed arguing that fault for the IRS's inappropriate targeting of conservative non-profit applicants lies with the president. “The Obama administration made clear its deep dislike of Citizens United and of the various new conservative groups spawned by the 'tea party' movement,” they wrote, and “the IRS has always been well-attuned to even subtle guidance from the White House.” That argument was borrowed from Kimberley Strassel's May 17 Journal column: “All [Obama] needed to do was exactly what he did do, in full view, for three years: Publicly suggest that conservative political groups were engaged in nefarious deeds.”

This notion of bureaucrat whispering is, in isolation, a pretty big stretch. But the tableau created by Rivkin and Casey, in which politically savvy IRS employees scrutinize the president's every syllable and gesture with decoder rings at the ready, is ludicrous given what we now know about the tax agency office in Cincinnati where groups had their non-profit applications scrutinized. According to the New York Times, it was an understaffed, chaotic mess that got into trouble because it lacked guidance:

Overseen by a revolving cast of midlevel managers, stalled by miscommunication with I.R.S. lawyers and executives in Washington and confused about the rules they were enforcing, the Cincinnati specialists flagged virtually every application with Tea Party in its name. But their review went beyond conservative groups: more than 400 organizations came under scrutiny, including at least two dozen liberal-leaning ones and some that were seemingly apolitical.

Over three years, as the office struggled with a growing caseload of advocacy groups seeking tax exemptions, responsibility for the cases moved from one group of specialists to another, and the Determinations Unit, which handles all nonprofit applications, was reorganized. One batch of cases sat ignored for months. Few if any of the employees were experts on tax law, contributing to waves of questionnaires about groups' political activity and donors that top officials acknowledge were improper.

From the Times report, it seems like there's a lot to be said regarding the IRS's inefficiency and “dysfunction,” to borrow from a former IRS employee quoted by the paper. But this notion that low-level bureaucrats are standing ready to receive secret political communiques from the president is an invention of conservative pundits looking to bridge the considerable distance between the fumbling IRS employees in Ohio and the Oval Office.