It Comes From the Top –27 May 2013

Imagine this: you’re a small-scale businessperson in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.  Seeing corruption and governmental incompetence at all levels around you, you decide to do something about it: you found a couple of better-government organizations.  Careful to stay within the law, you submit for interest-group status.  This sparks a great deal of interest in you on the part of the Russian government.

Over the next 18 months, you receive no fewer than 6 visits from the Department of State Security, asking both general questions, and specific ones, such as, “Do you know this man? Who else in your organization knows him?  When was the last time he came to one of your meetings?”

During the same period, the State Taxing Authority conducts an audit of your business, an audit of your personal tax returns, and no fewer than four times comes calling and demanding answers about your two grass-roots interest groups.  The State Weapons Control Agency audits your firm not once but twice, ostensibly to make sure your factory is not making something you shouldn’t.  And the Russian Worker’s Protection Authority audits your business as well.  

Each visit is intrusive, diverting time and resources from your normal business, and marked by suspicion – the authorities’ starting point seems to be that you’ve got something to hide, and their job is to find it.

An American observing this official harassment would probably shrug and say, what do you expect?  Putin is ex-KGB, and the Russians never really figured out this democracy stuff.  This is a country that has no qualms about trampling the civil rights of oligarchs and peasantry alike.  If the agencies of the government are used to quell insurgent democratic voices, well, that’s classic thug government.  You see it in Russia, you see it in Venezuela, you see it in lots of places.

And now you see it in the United States.  For this is the tale of Catherine Engelbrecht, a businesswoman from Texas who founded the King Street Patriots and True the Vote, the latter a group dedicated to combating vote fraud.  After she and her husband submitted to the IRS for tax-exempt status, they were visited by, variously and multiple times, the FBI, the IRS, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA).  And she has yet to receive her tax-exempt status from the IRS.  This harassment took place over the period from December 2010 to the present – in other words, during the months up to and including Barack Obama’s re-election.

This is stunning.  It is impossible to imagine all these governmental examinations as coincidental.  Not when you place them against the background of the abuses the IRS has committed against – and only against – similar conservative groups during the same time period.   And because the harassment came from multiple agencies, it cannot be laid at the doorstep of an overzealous or rogue bureau in Cincinnati.  In some very real way, this had to have been directed.

So far, the IRS scandal has shown us how hard it will be to get any accounting out of the government.  Despite the Inspector General’s report and a round of Congressional hearings, we know nothing about how the campaign of harassment of Tea Party, Patriot, and similar groups was initiated.  People in Cincinnati say “it came from the top,” but the top bureaucrats either take the Fifth, or don’t remember, or deny knowing anything.  They lied back in 2011 when Congress asked them pointblank if they were targeting conservative groups, and now insist – with the bald shamelessness of someone insisting “black is white” – that they told the truth at the time.

While we do not know how this effort began, we do have a good feel for the results.  In the months before the President’s re-election, citizen groups expected to campaign against him were subjected to delay, obstruction, and limitations on their fundraising and political effectiveness.  

In other words, the machinery of the government was deployed to suppress the First Amendment rights of the President’s opposition.  And as Catherine Engelbrecht’s story suggests, this abuse of power may have been systematic, involving several agencies of the government, not just the IRS.  How many more stories are there out there like hers?

I suppose we can take some comfort that, unlike Putin’s Russia or Chavez’ Venezuela, when abuses like this come to light we have a press and a Congress that will step up to protect the rights of those mistreated by the government.  These out-of-control bureaucrats cannot act as contemptuously in this country as they could elsewhere.

But that is a rather slender reed, when you think of how sycophantic the press has been toward Obama for most of the last four-plus years, and when you think that it is only because we have a Republican House that these investigations are taking place.  This would be a non-issue if Nancy Pelosi were Speaker.  The missing element that ought to make abuses like this unthinkable is a respect for the dignity of our political process that ought to come from the very top.

Instead, the Obama White House has set the tone for this kind of all-out politics.  From the cold shoulder shown to Fox News to the demonizing of Wall Street, insurance companies, the oil business, etc, the White House has sought to de-legitimize its opposition.  Don’t forget it was the Obama 2012 campaign that led the way in targeting private individuals for their politics – as I pointed out previously, an Obama website named Romney donors by name and impugned their characters and their business ethics, and slurred them with insinuations of legally questionable activities.  True to form, some of the most prominent were audited by the IRS shortly after being thus outed.

Regardless of whether the Engelbrecht outrages and all the rest were sparked by a White House order or merely the response of a politically motivated bureaucracy to the President’s signal of intent, Barack Obama bears responsibility for the acts done in his name – and make no mistake, these were done to help ensure his re-election.

In 1170, King Henry II of England cried, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”  His words set in motion a chain of events that led to the martyrdom of Thomas a Becket, the priest who so confounded the King.  Henry afterward did penance for having caused the murder, however indirectly.

We could only hope for such humility and self-awareness from the President.

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