EVEN THE MOST conscientious taxpayers have wondered at times whether the IRS is out to get them. Unfortunately, we now know such fears aren't entirely unjustified, given the deeply troubling revelations that the agency has been targeting specific groups for additional scrutiny and unwarranted delays of their applications for non-profit status.
When members of Congress raised questions last year about whether the IRS was engaging in this kind of abuse of power, they were met with denials by high-ranking IRS officials. But some knew a year ago - and at least one key figure was aware of the scheme dating back as far as 2011.
What we now know is that from 2010 to 2012, a section of the IRS' Cincinnati office that handles applications for tax-exempt status used the names or suspected political views of particular applicants as a trigger for unnecessarily intrusive questions.
This disturbing pattern of behavior confirms every American's worst fears about the potential abuse of government power in general and the IRS specifically: that their beliefs or their associations will result in targeted harassment from Big Brother.
Given the hierarchical nature of how bureaucracies function, the IRS' behavior raises serious questions about who authorized a policy that allowed specific groups of Americans to be singled out for unjustified questions and their applications for tax-exempt status blocked or delayed for years simply based on their name or suspected political views. In the context of the 2012 presidential election, that behavior is particularly troubling.
Right now, we have more excuses than answers.
Appearing before Congress recently, the outgoing IRS director apologized for making "mistakes" and providing "poor service." By contrast, imagine for a moment how futile it would be for a private citizen or a small business owner to respond to an IRS investigation with a simple shrug of the shoulders and an apology.
Adding insult to injury, the IRS official who ran the tax-exempt division at the time was asked to testify before Congress but chose to plead the Fifth Amendment, refusing to answer questions on the basis that she will incriminate herself. Private citizens can't easily avoid IRS demands for basic information, and IRS officials shouldn't dodge tough questions from lawmakers.
Shameless attempts to avoid responsibility and undermine Congress' efforts to provide effective oversight cannot be tolerated. The IRS has grossly abused its authority, going so far as to ask groups about the nature of their prayer meetings and demanding details about their activity on Facebook and Twitter. The American people deserve a thorough, bipartisan investigation that is focused on finding out what went wrong, holding wrong-doers fully accountable, and protecting taxpayers from overzealous IRS scrutiny in the future.
Here's another point of concern: the IRS official who was in charge of the tax-exempt division during the time of the targeting scheme is now heading up the IRS office that is tasked with implementing the health care law's extensive tax requirements.
Make no mistake, the IRS will be at the center of enforcing this burdensome new law's mandates. That's because uninsured Americans who don't purchase coverage will face a tax penalty. IRS agents will be verifying who purchased government-approved health insurance, and taxing those who don't. And the agency has the authority to reduce future tax refunds.
Closer scrutiny of Americans' tax returns will inevitably result in more audits, which will lead to more federal workers. One estimate indicates that thousands of auditors, agents and other employees may need to be hired to investigate and collect billions in new taxes. The price tag for IRS implementation of the Affordable Care Act already approaches half a billion dollars, and the President's budget request certainly indicates that these costs will grow.
As all Americans brace themselves for additional scrutiny from the IRS, they'll rightfully be wondering about the questions they're being asked and why. Right now, they have every reason to be suspicious of an agency that has abused its power. The only way to prevent Americans from being unfairly targeted by the IRS in the future is through a bipartisan investigation that gets to the bottom of what happened, holds those responsible fully accountable for their actions, and takes legislative steps to ensure it never happens again.
Kelly Ayotte, a Republican from Nashua, represents New Hampshire in the U.S. Senate.