If you take a group of Democrats who are also unionized government employees, and put them in charge of policing political speech, it doesn't matter how professional and well-intentioned they are. The result will be much like the debacle in the Cincinnati office of the IRS.
The IRS's targeting of Tea Party groups doesn't look like a Nixonian abuse of power by the Obama White House. And there's no reason to even posit evil intent by the IRS officials who formulated, approved or executed the inappropriate guidelines for picking groups to scrutinize most closely.
There's a fairly innocent -- and fairly probable -- explanation for what the IRS did, and it boils down to the natural suspicion people have of those with opposing views.
The public servants figuring out which groups qualified for 501(c)4 "social welfare" non-profit status were mostly Democrats surrounded by mostly Democrats.
Democrats received 75 percent of the campaign contributions I could trace to employees of the IRS Cincinnati office over the last three election cycles. In the 2012 election, every donation traceable to this office went to President Obama or liberal Sen. Sherrod Brown.
This is an environment where even those trying to be fair could develop a disproportionate distrust of the Tea Party.
One IRS worker -- a member of NTEU and contributor to its PAC, which gives 96 percent of its money to Democratic candidates -- explained it this way: "The reason NTEU mostly supports Democratic candidates for office is because Democratic candidates are mostly more supportive of civil servants/government employees."
Another IRS employee made a similar point in an email to me: "Do you think people willing to sacrifice lucrative private sector careers to work in tax administration ... are generally going to support the party directed by Grover Norquist?" he asked, rhetorically, referring to the head of Americans for Tax Reform, which lobbies to cut taxes and shrink government.
In another email, this same IRS employee blamed Republicans for making the IRS's job so difficult that they have to cut corners. He wrote of "career civil servants trying to cope with an impossible job, a job made impossible primarily by the likes of Boehner, Boustany, Issa, et al," referring to three GOP lawmakers.
So, begin with these partisan and ideological assumptions and then consider the job these civil servants had to do. The law and IRS regulations provide incomplete guidance on what qualifies as "social welfare" activity. Bureaucrats are left alone to try to identify which groups are too political. It's human nature to suspect "the other side" of being overly political, while seeing your own side as truly pursuing "social welfare."
In another email, an IRS official defended the agency's questions for Tea Party groups as "part of a legitimate inquiry as to whether an organization is political in nature, or is in some reasonable sense existing to promote social welfare."
If you're a federal employee, and a member of the National Treasury Employees' Union, you may not see how it serves "social welfare" to advocate shrinking the government, cutting taxes and slashing spending.
Documents made public show that the IRS asked applicants, "Indicate your position regarding each issue" on which they worked. Why does it matter what position a group took? Maybe one side of an issue is considered more political than the other.
One of my IRS correspondents had an interesting detail on his social media profile. He belongs to a Facebook group titled "Target the Shutdown at the Tea Party States." Created in the run-up to the 2011 debt-ceiling showdown, the group's Facebook page advocated a hard-nosed tactic for President Obama to take in negotiating with House Republicans:
"My idea would be to target the shutdown at Tea Party states," the group's page explains. "For instance, shut down air traffic control at airports in Norfolk, Tampa, Nashville, Indianapolis, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, etc...."
Without positing a conspiracy or bad motives, it's easy to see why the IRS would stack the deck against conservatives.
Here's the problem: As long as we have a civil service workforce that leans Left, and as long as we have an income tax system that requires the IRS to police political speech, conservative groups can always expect special IRS scrutiny.
Timothy P.Carney, The Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.