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Don’t expect IRS to monitor itself

A bedrock principle of U.S. democracy is that the coercive powers of government are never used for partisan purpose.

The law is blind to political viewpoint, and so are its enforcers, most especially the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service. Any violation of this principle threatens the trust and the voluntary cooperation of citizens upon which this democracy depends.

So it was appalling to learn Friday that the IRS had improperly targeted conservative groups for scrutiny.

It was almost as disturbing that President Obama and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew have not personally apologized to the American people and promised a full investigation.

“Mistakes were made,” the agency said in a statement. IRS official Lois Lerner explained that staffers used a “shortcut” to sort through a large number of applications from groups seeking tax-exempt status, highlighting organizations with “tea party” or “patriot” in their names. The IRS insisted emphatically that partisanship had nothing to do with it. However, it seems that groups with “progressive” in their titles did not receive the same scrutiny.

If it was not partisanship, was it incompetence? Stupidity, on a breathtaking scale? At this point, the IRS has lost any standing to determine and report on what exactly happened.

Certainly Congress will investigate, as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., promised. Obama also should guarantee an unimpeachably independent inquiry.

One line of questioning should focus on how the IRS’ procedures failed to catch this “shortcut” before its employees began using it. Another should center on how this misguided practice came to light, and on what the IRS planned and plans to do about it. Lerner was responding to a question when the news first came out; it’s not clear whether the government intended otherwise to disclose what had happened. Nor have officials been clear whether disciplinary measures have been taken.

Did some officials hope never to reveal this wrongdoing? Did others hope it could quickly get lost in the weekend news cycle? Misguided, if so. We hope to hear Democratic leaders as well as Republican ones loudly saying so.

The agency said that it now has rules in place to make sure this sort of thing never happens again. How could such basic safeguards not have existed in the first place? And what are the new rules? In response to our questions, officials did not say.

Thankfully, it’s a safe bet that the decision on whether to answer such questions won’t rest solely with the agency for much longer.

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