The IRS’s Cincinnati office: overworked, overwhelmed, and grossly incompetent.

Internal Revenue ServiceInternal Revenue Service (cc photo by functoruser)

We’re learning more and more about the IRS office in Cincinnati, and with every new piece of information we get, the less this seems like a genuine scandal. Rather, the general atmosphere of that much alienated branch of the Internal Revenue Service was pretty well encapsulated by this short statement to the NY Times from Bonnie Esrig, a senior agency manager who retired from that very office in June, “I was not a happy camper leaving that organization, and I can still say that I don’t think there was malice behind it at all.”

There’s really no evidence at all to suggest that the targeting of conservative groups was in some way directed by higher ups at the agency, and certainly no linkage whatsoever between the targeting and anyone related to the Obama campaign. Is it possible for an action like this to have been not politically biased in intent, even if the targeting was clearly politically biased in effect? The evidence and information we’re gleaning from the Cincinnati office suggests that it is.

And so attention is turned towards these employees, many of whom have been labeled as rogue, insubordinate and malicious. More to the truth, Esrig notes that, “I don’t believe there’s any such thing as rogue agents — there are some that aren’t as competent as others, just like in any workplace.” They were employees that shouldn’t have been trusted with a task as important and as large as trying to delineate between the roughly 70,000 tax-exempt status applications the Cincinnati IRS office processes each year. While most are easy to discern, the understaffed and overworked Cincinnati employees basically didn’t know how to properly manage the unprecedented spike in 501(c)4 applications in 2010.

But the larger point here isn’t the example of what can happen to workers when they’re asked to do more than they can manage. The IRS is the one agency we should keep as insulated from politics as humanely possible. It’s the one institution where power, legitimacy, and efficacy are all dependent on it being perceived as apolitical, unmoved, and unmotivated by ideology or gain. We shouldn’t want the IRS deciding who is and who is not a political group – doing so is obviously in conflict with their core competency. Doing away with the 501(c)4 designation all together would on the one hand remove any chance of this ever happening again, and on the other, reverse the pervasive trend of political organizations grossly manipulating the tax structure of the United States.

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