How Obama Could Start Fixing the IRS

Step one, name a Republican--preferably a prominent one--to head the agency.

(Susan Walsh/AP Photo)

The Internal Revenue Service needs a new leader--and fast.

The agency hasn't had a commissioner since November, and now it doesn't have an acting commissioner, either. Although lawmakers had been asking about reports that conservative groups were targeted for onerous extra scrutiny, the acting commissioner, Steven Miller, didn't share the information when he later learned that to be the case. President Obama said Wednesday that Miller's resignation had been requested and accepted.

"It's important to institute new leadership that can help restore confidence going forward," Obama said. But he didn't say who that person or persons might be.

The president's failure to nominate a new commissioner over the past few months was negligent, but it also gives him an opportunity. Announcing an impressive nominee soon would be another sign that the White House is serious about opening a new chapter at the IRS and trying to rebuild trust--in the IRS, the whole administration, and the federal government in general.

It's not hard to imagine Senate Republicans slowing confirmation proceedings to a crawl. After all, why rush to clean up a mess that reflects incredibly badly on Obama, his administration, and his party? Especially when it could help the GOP in the 2014 House and Senate elections, and in fact is already in use as a campaign tool?

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.