Who You Gonna Call? (To Testify at Your Congressional Hearing)

By Luana Wang

What do ghosts, political conspiracies, and taxes have in common?

If you answered, “the government secretly used tax dollars to fund paranormal research,” well … some might say you’re right, but that’s not what I was thinking of.

Those three things were also the focus of the latest congressional hearing on the IRS.

Congressional hearings on the IRS are like episodes of reality television: There are way too many of them that are just the same thing over and over again, most people are only watching for the carefully-orchestrated spectacle, and every once in a while you get a celebrity host aiming for a publicity boost.

In other words, they’re kind of a fantastic guilty pleasure. However, as in reality TV, any substantive issues were obscured by the drama and noise of people wanting to make a splash.

Over the course of this particular hearing, we heard:

  • threats of impeachment and accusations of perjury against the IRS Commissioner,
  • numerous suggestions to abolish the IRS altogether,
  • countless claims of political conspiracy by the IRS,
  • advocacy for the repeal of the 16th Amendment,
  • references to Richard Nixon’s ghost (presumably an entity distinct from Nixon the man).

You would think that drama such as this belongs more on House of Cards than in any actual congressional hearing, but the amazing thing is that this is only one of many hearings on the IRS. In the time since IRS Commissioner Koskinen came into office, he has attended and testified at more than 30 hearings on the so-called IRS “scandal.” Each of these hearings brings accusations ranging from usual to absurd. Did the IRS fail to review important documents in its investigation of the scandal? Is the IRS spying on us?

While the distraction provided by these hearings is remarkably entertaining (especially in the absence of any sort of meaningful social life or hobby for this author), we have to wonder what we’re missing in the noise. Is it the more than $20 million that’s been poured into numerous investigations of the same old scandal while the IRS has been starved for resources?

Maybe it’s the numerous attempts to block a rulemaking that would create clearer bright line rules for nonprofit political activity. This is strange, because so much of the alleged targeting was due to IRS discretion when it comes to determining what is or isn’t non-profit political activity.

So many people are advocating for bright line solutions that would prevent future targeting in these hearings, yet being ignored in favor of grandstanding and ghost hunting. That’s the real IRS scandal.

Luana Wang is a legal fellow with Public Citizen’s Bright Lines Project

Sign up to receive a weekly email highlighting the best from Public Citizen’s blogs.