As the National Republican Congressional Committee put it Wednesday,
referring to the IRS's role enforcing tax penalties for people who don't
buy insurance under "Obamacare," "How can we trust that an agency who
has already committed an outrageous abuse of power with a 'dominant role' in an entitlement program that will have control over our health care?"
The committee branded the Affordable Care Act "calamitous" and its
rollout "nothing short of an unmitigated disaster," a bit of hyperbole,
as the rollout of the act's main features doesn't start until Oct. 1.
Still, it's a politically effective link that will at the very least
energize conservatives already infuriated by the new law.
That said, the right IRS nominee might attract some GOP support. And
with reaction by Obama and his administration focused so far on
investigating and correcting past IRS abuses, announcing a nominee would
be a high-profile move that looks to the future.
IRS commissioners and acting commissioners over the past 150 years
have been, to understate the case, obscure. Michael Knoll, codirector
of the Center for Tax Law and Policy at the University of Pennsylvania,
said the commissioner's post is "generally very much an administrative
job" that requires a good manager, but that Obama might want "somebody
with a little more gravitas up there at the top to send the right
signal" at this point, both internally and to the public. "It's a world
with a lot of minefields," Knoll said. Being perceived as partisan, he
said, is "incredibly damning" for an agency that
everyone in the country has to deal with and "you're relying on people's
good faith" to pay their taxes.
Ideally, the next IRS commissioner would be a well-known player who
is familiar with both taxes and politics. A former member of Congress
who served on a House or Senate committee dealing with taxes would be
perfect, especially if that former member is a Republican. My personal
dream candidate would be former Sen. Olympia Snowe, 66, a Republican
centrist who served on the Senate Finance Committee. Another prominent
choice would be Republican former Rep. Bill Thomas, 71, the former
chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
A couple of former staff people are also worth mentioning. One is Sheila Burke,
who was chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole for 11
years and on the staff of the Finance Committee for six years,
including three as deputy staff director. The other is Steve Bell,
an aide to former Sen. Pete Domenici for 25 years and a former staff
director of the Senate Budget Committee. State tax directors may be
another fertile hunting ground, although unlikely to produce names
familiar to the country or even to Washington insiders.
The IRS job is thankless under any circumstances, much less these,
and in all likelihood isn't exalted enough for most former members or
even former senior staff to consider. But with the FBI investigating
potential criminal violations and a series of oversight hearings in the
offing, Obama should be looking for a white knight, someone who can give
the IRS a fresh start and Americans some reassurance that this agency
in particular--"given the power that it has and the reach that it has
into all of our lives," as he put it--is in good hands.