When officials of the Internal Revenue Service targeted a number of conservative organizations seeking tax exemptions, it rightly caused a national furor. But while members of Congress of both parties are quick to criticize, they’re not as often willing to do the difficult work of addressing real-world problems.
And even if the congressional machinery grinds into gear on a given issue, the poisonous level of partisanship in the body often derails the legislative train.
Is there a happy exception in the case of the IRS scandals? There might be, and a Louisiana lawmaker is pushing what could be a bipartisan set of proposals that addresses some of the issues.
The House approved three bills late Tuesday by U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, to reform agency practices. Some other legislation pushed by Republicans in the House provoked more fights, but Boustany’s “straightforward” legislation — in the words of a senior Democratic member — won approval and may have a better chance of gaining eventual passage in the Senate.
As chairman of the oversight subcommittee of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, Boustany has aggressively pursued his investigation into the targeting of conservative groups by IRS officials in charge of reviewing applications for tax-exempt status.
Congress pressured the agency to crack down on tax-exempt groups violating the rules against more than very limited political activity. Conservative groups complained the enforcement was excessive and partisan.
Some of the problem is with ambiguities in the law, but Boustany’s subcommittee found plenty of reasons for its hearings: An IRS official at the center of the enforcement effort, Lois Lerner, was forced out of her position in 2013, and was held in contempt of Congress after she refused to testify. IRS officials added fuel to the controversy when they claimed that because of computer crashes, they could not find some of Lerner’s emails sought by congressional investigators.
The Boustany measures passed by the House include one that we particularly like. It would prohibit IRS officials from using their personal email accounts for official business, as Lerner had. This is a dodge to avoid scrutiny that is popular in an era of email and smartphones. The principle is one that should be applied elsewhere in government — not only within the federal government, but at the state and local level, too.
There is little time left in the congressional session, so the House-passed bills might end up on next year’s calendar. But Boustany’s leadership in pushing reforms that Democrats can support suggests that legislating, rather than partisan sniping, is still possible on Capitol Hill.