The Obama administration, claiming it has been forced by sequestration to cut corners wherever it can, has indefinitely canceled all White House tours. Closing the Executive Mansion off from the public is cutting the multi-trillion-dollar federal budget less than $4 million dollars a year.
At the same time, the Internal Revenue Service has revealed that it spent more than 10 times that amount on employee conferences — a whopping $50 million to fund 220 meetings between 2010 and 2012.
There may be no logical connection between the two; no conscious decision by the president, for instance, to place a higher priority on meetings for bureaucrats than public access to taxpayer-funded buildings. The IRS operates with a high degree of independence, or at least it is supposed to.
But the public is likely to draw the connection, anyway, and it is not unreasonable to do so. Both are funded with tax dollars.
The extravagant conferences are outrageous, and they are relevant to a greater concern about the IRS placing increased scrutiny on conservative organizations and apparently, according to witness testimony this week, trying to intimidate those groups to relinquish their First Amendment rights.
Granted, amid all the scandal currently swirling around the IRS, this squandering of taxpayer dollars seems almost quaint in comparison. But it's one more sign that the IRS has grown increasingly distant from the people it was designed to serve.
It's also indicative of a larger problem that has infected all levels of government. The federal government has become so bloated and pervasive that $50 million doesn't attract much attention. This is especially upsetting when the culprit is the IRS, an agency with a reputation for ruthlessness in pursuit of every cent owed to it under the law. Its agents offer little leniency as they gather money, then show little accountability once it is safely in their hands.
We're glad the public is beginning to take notice and to examine this agency more closely.
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The Gallup Organization, one of the nation's most prestigious polling firms, released a survey last month showing only 27 percent of Americans would rate the job being done by the IRS as "excellent" or "good." Only 29 percent rated them "fair," and a staggering 42 percent labeled the performance of the IRS as "poor." Compare that to a similar poll in 2009, when the IRS received ratings that were almost the inverse of today's numbers. Back then, 40 percent labeled them "excellent" or "good," and a mere 20 percent ranked them as "poor." Apparently, whatever was taught in the $50 million worth of gatherings, it didn't improve the agency's perception with the public.
As Congress digs deeper to find the root of alleged IRS corruption, it also needs to discover ways to streamline the entire organization and impose greater accountability. Also, evidence is mounting that criminal charges may be necessary against those who may have used the agency's power to stifle political speech.
Becoming more efficient in collecting money is not enough. The IRS needs to be made to better serve the public and to live up to the republic's ideals.