"Horrible customer service." That's what the newly fired Internal Revenue Service commissioner averred was the agency's only sin in singling out conservative political groups for discriminatory treatment.
In such grim proceedings one should be grateful for unintended humor. Horrible customer service is when every patron in a restaurant finds a fly in his soup. But when the maitre d' screens patrons for their politics and only conservatives find flies paddle-wheeling through their consomme, the problem is not poor service. It is harassment and invidious discrimination.
And yet both the acting and previous IRS commissioners insisted that the singling out of groups according to politics was in no way politically motivated. More hilarity. It's definitional: If you discriminate according to politics, your discrimination is political. It's a tautology, for God's sake.
The IRS responds that this classification was for efficiency, to cut down on overwork. Ridiculous. How does demanding answers to endless intrusive and irrelevant questions, creating mountains of unnecessary paperwork for both applicant and IRS, reduce workload?
We are further asked to believe that a cadre of Cincinnati GS-11s is a hotbed of radical-left activism in America. Is anyone stupid enough to believe that?
That's why the IRS scandal has legs. And because pulling the myriad loose ends of this improbable tale will be the Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Democrat Max Baucus. So much for any reflexive administration charge of a partisan witch hunt.
On Wednesday, however, the issue was in the hands of the House Oversight Committee. It allowed Lois Lerner, the IRS official who had already apologized for targeting tea party groups, to read an opening statement claiming total innocence: "I have not done anything wrong. I have not broken any laws. I have not violated any IRS rules or regulations and I have not provided false information to this or any other congressional committee."
She then refused, on grounds of self-incrimination, to answer any questions.
Perhaps not wanting to appear overbearing, Chairman Darrell Issa gave her a pass, pending legal advice on whether she had forfeited her Fifth Amendment shield by making a statement. Then again, Lerner's performance may not have endeared her to the average viewer. Her arrogance reminded anyone who needed reminding why the IRS is so unloved.
Try saying what she said — I deny, I deny, I deny, and I refuse to answer any of your questions — when you're next called in for an IRS audit.
Does the IRS scandal go all the way up to the top? As of now, doubtful. It's nearly inconceivable that anyone would be stupid enough to have given such a politically fatal directive from the White House (although admittedly the bar is rapidly falling).
But when some bureaucrat is looking for cues from above, it matters when the president of the United States denounces the Supreme Court decision that allowed the proliferation of 501(c)4s and specifically calls the resulting "special interest groups" running ads to help Republicans "not just a threat to Democrats — that's a threat to our democracy." That's especially telling when it comes amid letters from Democratic senators to the IRS urging aggressive scrutiny of 501(c)4 applications.
A White House can powerfully shape other perceptions as well. For years the administration has conducted a concerted campaign to demonize Fox News, delegitimizing it as a news organization, even urging its ostracism. Then (surprise!) its own Justice Department takes the unprecedented step of naming a Fox reporter a co-conspirator in a leak case — when no reporter has ever been prosecuted for merely soliciting information — in order to invade his and Fox's private and journalistic communications.