You probably missed it, buried deep in Section A of the Star Tribune (“No criminal charges in IRS case,” Oct. 24). The Justice Department informed Congress that it would not file criminal charges in the IRS’ mishandling of the applications for tax exemption by conservative Tea Party groups.

Even more telling, the Justice Department not only specifically absolved the unit’s director, Lois Lerner, but found that she was in fact the first official to recognize the problem and tried to correct it. Yes, this is the same Lois Lerner that Republicans have railed against and wanted prosecuted the past two-plus years.

Of course, none of this is very surprising. In a commentary at the time, I opined that there were no overt political overtones to the alleged scandal, but simply IRS personnel trying to prioritize their workflow because of a lack of resources due to budget cuts (“A necessary evil: The IRS,” July 1, 2013). Anyone with experience working with large bureaucracies understands that lower-level employees have no grand designs other than to get their job done so they can go home on time. The irony of this whole episode, I noted, was that Congress caused the very thing of which it bitterly complained about by cutting the IRS budget to the bone.

Since then, the Republican Congress has continued to slash the IRS budget as punishment for this perceived misdeed. It has gotten to the point where the IRS doesn’t have the funds to provide basic taxpayer services like answering the phones — for which Congress blames the IRS, which causes more budget cuts in a seemingly endless vicious cycle. The fact that Congress is in the process of cutting revenue and increasing a budget deficit that it purportedly wishes to minimize doesn’t seem to penetrate its visceral hatred of the agency.

The truth is that the IRS is probably the most efficient bureaucracy in the world. It costs the agency only 41 cents to collect $100 in revenue. Increase its enforcement allocation and the government is likely to get over a 10:1 return.

More than 280 million federal tax returns will be filed in 2015. Meanwhile, Congress makes it impossible for the IRS to do its job by myriad actions, from micromanaging permissible audit techniques to waiting on passing legislation needed to finalize tax return forms.

In any rational world, Congress apologizes to all involved and restores the IRS budget to at least what it was before the nonscandal began. After all, Justice and the FBI interviewed more than 100 witnesses and reviewed more than 1 million pages of IRS documents to conclude that there was not a single “allegation, concern or suspicion that the handling of [any IRS function] was motivated by political bias, discriminatory intent or corruption.”

Instead, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., released a statement that “the American people should be concerned that this kind of politicization continues to go unchecked by this administration.” In other words, he believes the two-year investigation by the Justice Department was bogus because it doesn’t fit his preconceived narrative. Facts be damned, let conspiracy theorists rejoice! Such a statement demonstrates a complete lack of intellect and should disqualify him from elective office. Of course, on that basis, most of Congress would be disqualified.

In contrast, Rep. Paul Ryan is a “serious politician.” Whether you agree with him or not, he has put forth serious proposals on many of the key issues of the day. If there were only a counterpart on the Democratic Party side, we could have a serious debate about two competing world views. Sadly, the Democrats would rather score political points by fear-mongering than tackle entitlements or the budget deficit.

To most people, becoming speaker of the House sounds like a promotion. But in taking that position, Ryan knew that he was giving up his status as a serious politician. As chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, he could take the lead in ushering forward both entitlement and tax reform. As speaker, he becomes a glorified babysitter. The children are the far right of his party, who too often act like 3-year olds throwing a tantrum, threatening to upend the board if they don’t get their way. It’s not hard to imagine why Ryan was loath to make the change.

Oh, by the way, Ryan reacted to the Justice Department report by saying it was a “disappointment.” He suggested that congressional investigations would continue. He wasn’t even officially speaker of the House yet, but was already pandering.

 

Paul Gutterman is director of the master of business taxation program in the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.