Tuesday, May 14, 2013

EDITORIAL >> Second terms no cakewalk

Second presidential terms seldom end on a high note: Watergate chased Richard Nixon out of office, Iran-contra ruined Ronald Reagan’s second term and Monica Lewinsky knocked the wind out from under Bill Clinton’s presidency. George W. Bush never recovered from waging his protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Then there was the start of the Great Recession of 2008 and still with no end in sight, making it difficult for most of us to feel nostalgic for W’s presidency.

It’s looking more like a lame duck presidency for Barack Obama, as well, not only because Republicans are blocking his legislative program, from background checks for weapons purchases to immigration reform. He’s in trouble over continuing revelations about Benghazi, excesses at the IRS — whose Orwellian “Determinations Unit” was caught harassing tea party groups for opposing the Obama administration and now the tapping of journalists’ phones who write about the war on terror without seeking clearance from the government.

The troubling revelations about misdeeds at the Internal Revenue Service are serious enough, but no less troubling is the latest admission from the Justice Department that it monitored hundreds of phone calls at the Associated Press.

The Justice Department confiscated the AP’s telephone records to find out who leaked the news about the CIA breaking up a terror plot in Yemen. AP officials have called the Justice Department’s actions a gross violation of the news agency’s “constitutional rights to gather and report the news.”

The snooping is reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s obsession with bugging the phones of journalists and the politicization of the IRS that helped depose the Nixon gang. Attorney General Eric Holder had assigned the AP case to the U.S. attorney in Washington. Both have a lot of explaining to do.

As for the excesses at the IRS, maybe “the low-level employees” who are blamed for this fiasco were trying to please the boss, which is bad enough, but now it appears that higher-level IRS officials hatched the plan to single out tea partiers and other self-described patriotic groups. The Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation.

Other organizations, including a pro-Israeli group, were told they would not be granted nonprofit status because they opposed Obama’s Mideast policies.

There’s no evidence anyone in the White House orchestrated the harassment of the tea party. “If in fact IRS personnel engaged in the kind of practices that have been reported on and were intentionally targeting conservative groups, then that’s outrageous and there’s no place for it — and they have to be held fully accountable,” Obama told reporters Monday.

Even the American Civil Liberties Union is angry. Republicans hope to abolish the IRS if they take over the White House and the Senate.

Lois Lerner, who heads the IRS’ tax-exemption section, admitted in a mealy-mouthed mea culpa that “mistakes were made”— bureaucrats always use the passive voice when they’re caught misbehaving. She said the IRS is “apologetic” — why not just apologize? — and blamed the violations on “career employees,” which gives you an idea what kind of people make careers at the IRS, including Ms. Lerner. She will be hauled before congressional committees, along with other department heads, as they should be: Who ordered the auditing of tea party groups and who started covering up for them?

It will be a hot summer for IRS officials as they face tough questions from Congress, where it has few friends. The IRS could lose future funding, which could lead to a more sensible tax-collection system, which is long overdue.