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Crossing sacred lines
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You don't have to be a member of the tea party to be outraged over the Internal Revenue Service's special and unwarranted scrutiny of conservative groups. I'm not, and I am.
For four decades liberals have nursed hurts over the Nixon administration's use of the IRS to intimidate if not punish its political opponents. The very first item in Article II of the House Judiciary Committee resolution impeaching Nixon speaks of "violating the constitutional rights of citizens" and the improper examination of "confidential information contained in income tax returns."
One thing a second-term president wants to avoid is appearing in the same sentence with the word "Nixon," and so the IRS forays during the Obama years, combined with the disclosure that the Justice Department obtained phone records of Associated Press reporters and editors, puts the current administration in unusual peril.
These twin incursions into well-established rights -- violations of the trust and sense of fair-mindedness that government requires, even if politics does not -- underline two principles that should be sacred, whether the president is a Republican or a Democrat, whether the timbre of the times is conservative or liberal:
Never mess with the work of an independent press. Never use the taxing authority of the government for political ends.
No two institutions of American governance are more precious and deserving of caution from officials who -- and here Republicans and Democrats are equally vulnerable to sin -- believe they have reason to deplore the one and abuse the other.
For generations Americans have been served by an independent press, which is one of the political and cultural distinctions of our civic life. And the entire functioning of our government requires that the power to tax -- which both Daniel Webster and John Marshall equated in 1819 with the power to destroy -- be deployed with antiseptic fairness.
Here is the scary thing: USA Today reports the IRS approved nonprofit status for liberal groups at the same time it was denying that status for conservative groups. Rhetoricians at the University of Pittsburgh and Jesus College, Cambridge, have developed a theory of "keywords," and it doesn't take a Pitt or Cambridge degree to ascertain the political leanings of a group with a name such as Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, which received tax-exempt status at the time when tea party groups employing words such as "patriot" did not.
None of this is good for the Obama administration as talk revolves around how the administration breached some of the most sacred lines in American life.
First Amendment purists are right that attacking press prerogatives is an attack on American values. And maybe conservatives are right about taxes, because the type of flat tax they espouse could help take the IRS out of politics and make all of these exemptions meaningless.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (dshribman@post-gazette.com).