Not More Laws -- More Oversight

COMMENTARY Political Process

Not More Laws -- More Oversight

Apr 28th, 1999 3 min read

Former Director, Executive Branch Relations

Virginia is the former Director of Executive Branch Relations.

Many people don't know that when Congress is not passing laws, spending money, or impeaching presidents it is-or should be-holding hearings and conducting investigations that ask tough questions of federal agencies and their use of taxpayer dollars. These hearings and investigations, known as congressional oversight, are perhaps the single most important feature of the "checks-and-balances" envisaged by the Founders to guide the direction-and therefore the accountability-of the federal government and its many agencies. And when it's conducted properly, as in the case of the IRS investigations, oversight of federal agencies can lead to real and positive change.

In their new and riveting book, The Power to Destroy, Senator William Roth of Delaware and William Nixon, an executive assistant to Roth, tell their behind-the-scenes story of holding oversight hearings on countless abuses by the Internal Revenue Service. The hearings revealed the truth behind the IRS's enforcement and collection methods - that agents were driven to bring in greater and greater amounts of revenue to feed Washington's spending habits. These methods, we now know, destroyed both individuals and families alike. The book shows the drama of putting these stories before the public in some 12 hearings in 1997 and 1998.

The vignettes the book expose are both shocking and serious, for they reveal the mob-like internal culture of a corrupt and abusive IRS-a culture that rewarded subversion of the law, harassment of taxpayers, and the targeting of politicians who threatened the agency's autonomy. It is indeed disheartening to find out that the IRS was targeting Americans who make between $25,000 and $50,000 precisely because they lacked the resources to fight back.

The book's virtue, however, lies not only in its vilification of the IRS-though many applaud the endeavor-but also in the courageous example it sets for current and future Members of Congress who would like to effectuate real change for the American people by showing similar informed, moral courage. And while the Roth IRS hearings focused America's attention on an agency that was unaccountable and out of control, the hearings really were more of a wake-up call to Washington: Americans no longer want a government that is incomprehensible and unaccountable. Indeed, Americans want laws they can understand, bureaucrats they can trust, and a Congress they can believe in.

Without proper congressional oversight, government agents can easily become drunk with power and terrorize the citizenry. Each year, the IRS puts 750,000 liens on taxpayers, 3.1 million levies and executes over 10,000 seizures of property. Roth and Nixon reveal that when $13.4 billion in assessments were actually challenged, only $4.3 billion remained legitimate. IRS can commit perjury, harass honest taxpayers, take your home and wreck reputations. IRS believes that fear increases compliance and revenue.

The IRS hearings Roth conducted - some 12 of them, were the product of only a handful of staff, who spent a year and a half investigating horror stories at a cost of less than $300,000. This was the price of justice for people such as:

Bruce Barron who was driven to suicide the night before he was to drive his daughter to see colleges, due to a seemingly unrelenting tangle with the IRS following a bankruptcy and house fire years prior;

Beth Barlow, an 88 year old blind widow of a man who had the tenacity to challenge an OSHA inspection of his small business all the way to the Supreme Court, for which he was dubbed a "tax protester" by the IRS;

3 high ranking public officials, including former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, who were framed by an out-of-control IRS agent; and

Twenty-three year old Stephanie Toth, a battered wife who divorced her husband and saw him finally jailed for rape and prostitution of her, was harassed two years later by IRS for his tax liability. Stephanie never thought anyone at the Senate would return her phone calls much less solve her problem, but Senator Roth and his staff did.

The legacy of Senator Roth's hearings, and now his book, will be his courageous and compelling example of how to use congressional oversight to reign in the federal government, reminding the bureaucrats from whence their authority comes and renewed the faith of taxpayers in their government. They hope that the book serves as a reminder that Congress must never again neglect its duty for oversight.

There are some 189 potential engines for congressional oversight when you count up all congressional committees and subcommittees with jurisdiction over federal agencies. There is an army of inspectors and auditors available to help the Congress at the General Accounting Office and offices of Inspectors General. Everyday, there are horror stories being told to congressional caseworkers of overzealous government actions -- property being confiscated, privacy being invaded, or injustices being wrought. Money is being wasted, fraud is being committed and programs are no longer working as originally intended. Let Bill Roth's example motivate and inform all with authority so that we can one day get the government we deserve.

Virginia L. Thomasis a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation ( ), a Washington-based public policy research institute.