So you want a new IRS commissioner? Unfortunately, there is little reason to believe that will cause the agency's corrupt activities to make an about turn.

So you want a new IRS commissioner? Unfortunately, there is little reason to believe that this will cause the agency’s corrupt activities to make an about turn. (Photo: Brookings Institution)

Frustration over Internal Revenue Service targeting of Tea Party and constitutionalist organizations has boiled over into demands for Commissioner John Koskinen to hit the road. If a tree is rotten, however, you need to strike the root. No trimming of the edges or revitalizing appearances will remedy the problem.

John Flemming (R-LA) has spearheaded the push for impeachment in the House of Representatives — with a hearing, rather than a simple vote, set to begin on September 21 — but he would do well to consider a lesson from public-choice economics. This field examines “politics without romance,” as quipped by cofounder and Nobel Laureate James Buchanan (1919-2013). Buchanan and his fellow researchers correctly pointed out that politicians and “public servants” are self interested and respond to incentives.

In the words of William Shughart, an economics professor at Utah State University, “Institutional problems demand institutional solutions.” Without distinct incentives, new personnel will inevitably respond as before and tend toward the same outcomes.

That is not to say Koskinen deserves to keep his role and is innocent of the charges. Rather, if Flemming and his 40 or so allies in the House Freedom Caucus are serious about confronting a corrupt and unaccountable IRS, they will need to go after the underlying legislation and structure of the tax system.

There are legitimate reasons why so many want Koskinen gone, and FreedomWorks is the latest prominent organization to back House Resolution 828. Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH) has stated on behalf of the House Freedom Caucus that Koskinen “misled Congress, allowed evidence pertinent to an investigation to be destroyed, and defied Congressional subpoenas and preservation orders.”

FreedomWorks CEO Adam Brandon is more direct: “The IRS commissioner lied under oath during congressional investigations about Lois Lerner’s missing emails. He should lose his job. End of story.” Even the progressive Charlotte Observer, the largest newspaper in the Carolinas, begrudgingly admits “it’s possible his performance has been sporadic and his commitment to transparency inconsistent.”

However, the Charlotte Observer goes on to defend Koskinen as a “Washington regular … not a criminal traitor.” Unfortunately, their tolerance for dishonesty reflects the partisan nature of the push for impeachment, which is why it has little chance of getting the necessary two-thirds approval for conviction in the Senate.

Despite a 426-member class-action lawsuit against the IRS, thus far no one has faced criminal charges for political targeting in the lead up to President Barack Obama’s reelection in 2012, which is now confirmed thanks to the penetrating work of Judicial Watch. Not even Lois Lerner has seen a charge against her, after she headed the Exempt Organizations Unit and simply stood down in 2013.

However, in the unlikely event that the Senate were to convict Koskinen, there remains the awkward fact that he was not in charge when the bulk of the targeting took place in 2010-2013. Further, the culpability and collaboration stretches to the Obama administration, the Justice Department, and even Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). Just this week, Judicial Watch released 72 pages of emails from Whitehouse to the Department of Justice seeking the prosecution of specific Tea Party groups in early 2013.

Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton adds that “Americans should know that the courts have recently concluded the Obama IRS abuses haven’t stopped — even as we approach another presidential election.”

For better or worse, the prosecution of one man, even if warranted, does nothing to change the tax code or the appointment process. Who can say that other elected officials, including Republicans, will not continue this criminal meddling into the future?

To come to grips with this predicament, I spoke with Chuck Henderson of the Flint Hills Tea Party in Kansas. He is a charter member and states that there are no formal officers of the organization; each person works as a volunteer. They appear on the IRS targeted list, because they wanted to start a scholarship program for young enthusiasts of the Constitution.

This process of getting approval for the Yes for Liberty Constitution Bee, Henderson explains, took 17 months and enormous manpower: “They finally gave up and acknowledged that we were exactly, no more no less, what we claimed to be: a nonprofit organization promoting scholarships.”

Informed by that experience, they have chosen to refrain from applying for legal status for the Tea Party group: “Why would we want to subject ourselves to that kind of harassment anyway?”

He is aware of the push for Koskinen’s impeachment and is adamant that it is deserved, but he admits he isn’t holding his breath and that it is not high on their priority list. “Any of these people, if they had a soul or a conscience,” he says, “should have blown a whistle on what was being done. But no, they’re just as partisan as anybody else in the bureaucracy and far too willing to go along and get along.”

As an alternative, Henderson is a strong advocate for reducing the IRS “into just a check-processing agency, a tiny, little skeleton crew of the tens of thousands of employees that they have now.”

Henderson explains that with a vast diminution of IRS responsibilities “the opportunity for fraud and gaming the system would just virtually vanish, and there wouldn’t need to be auditors, just a given small crew of accountants.”

That is the real debate we need to have, beyond matters of personnel and one-off punishments: how can we best scale down the overgrown responsibilities and powers of the IRS?

Let us know what you think in the comments below.