Let’s stipulate that the scandal involving the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative nonprofit groups portrays government as if drawn in caricature — an almost Keystone Kops-style comedy of errors on the part of low-level staffers, with a vein of possible political bias. Of course, the matter needs to be fully investigated, those responsible need to be held accountable and procedures need to be put in place to ensure that nothing like this can happen again. But let’s also remember what the I.R.S. brouhaha is not. Unlike the abuse of the I.R.S. by President Richard M. Nixon, in this case there’s no evidence that anyone in the White House had any involvement in — nor even any knowledge of — what was going on within the agency’s Tax Exempt and Government Entities Division.
In the post-Watergate years, legislation was passed to protect the I.R.S. against political meddling from the executive branch. That included — unusually — a five-year term for the I.R.S. commissioner.
Until his departure in November 2012, the I.R.S. commissioner was Douglas Shulman, an appointee of President George W. Bush. (Yesterday, the acting commissioner, Steven Miller, who was a career civil servant, resigned under pressure.)
And finally, note that when Lois Lerner, the head of the Tax Exempt and Government Entities Division, learned that applications were being singled out if they contained words like “Tea Party” in their names, she ordered that the practice be stopped. Regrettably, a bureaucratic ant colony succeeded in circumventing her instruction for several months.