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FRONT PAGE CONTRIBUTOR

Very special interests

The quest for “clean” energy has involved a lot of expensive jousting runs at windmills, but that’s nothing compared to the even more ruinous quest for “clean” Big Government.  The great and disastrous fantasy of the Twentieth Century was the dream of a wise central government, staffed by selfless and brilliant public servants, who could honorably employ coercive power to accomplish what individuals are too greedy and short-sighted to handle.  The pursuit of this fantasy led to a number of horrifying bloodbaths around the world.  In the United States, we’ve gotten off relatively lucky, with reduced liberty, a stagnant economy, and an arrogant ruling class.

We still haven’t learned a few of the past century’s vital lessons.  For example, the pursuit of honest and open Big Government is folly.  The bigger government gets, the more secrets it feels entitled to keep… and the less we are allowed to keep private from the State.  Even when the government makes real efforts at transparency, it has grown to a size that few citizens can comprehend.  Who can keep track of everything it’s doing?  Who has time to pluck the wheat of truth from the chaff of government spin?

Of course Big Government is not “accountable.”  Unchecked power grants thick armor against responsibility.  Vast resources can be deployed to buy off unhappy voters.  Citizens cannot be credible critics of the State without independence – how many complaints will aristocrats tolerate from their servants?  The American people have already sacrificed much of the independence required to be credible critics of the government.  Fully a third of the U.S. population is now receiving food assistance from the federal government, in one form or another.  When someone else feeds you, they don’t worry much about you holding them “accountable” for anything.

And Big Government is never “clean.”  Corruption is built right into its operating system.  Arrangements that earlier generations would have viewed as hopelessly corrupt are now accepted without much comment.  The lines between the State and private industry have blurred.  Political considerations influence every aspect of our lives.  Politicians mesmerize us with talk about cracking down on nefarious “special interests,” but the State itself is the greatest special interest of all.  It is keenly interested in expanding its wealth and influence.  It aggressively rewards its friends, and punishes its enemies.  Those endless billions of deficit dollars have been used to hire people who will reliably pursue the strategic interests of their government employer.  Threaten the State with fiscal restraint, and its deficit-funded employees instantly become hostages.

With that in mind, let us turn to a letter from government waste bloodhound Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA) to the new Acting Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, Daniel Werfel.  Coburn and Gingrey have a few questions about what two hundred of Werfel’s employees at the IRS have been up to, because it seems they don’t actually work for the IRS.

Recently, it has come to our attention that the IRS pays a number of employees full time salaries, funded by taxpayer dollars, for work they do not perform.  instead, these employees spend their time working for government employee unions.  Known as “official time,” in this arrangement (permitted under Title V of the US Code, section 7131, enacted under the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act) federal employees are paid to perform union duties instead of the jobs they were actually hired to do.

While the IRS continues to request more funding to further close the more than 14.5 percent tax gap, especially under the current budget crunch and sequestration, it makes little sense to use taxpayer resources to pay for union work.  This kind of practice takes place only in the government – in the private sector, union work and staff are paid for by union rules.

That’s exactly right, and it illustrates the essential difference between private unions (whose actions may be worthy of criticism, but whose existence is part of the right to free association) and public unions, which are utterly ridiculous and should not exist at all.  Private unions and employers exist in a state of opposition, or at least distinction.  Hopefully they get along well together, but they have opposing goals.  Or, to put things in less adversarial terms, the union is a corporation from which employers purchase labor.

Not so with the public employee union.  They are appendages of the government that employs them.  When the State negotiates with public unions, it is bargaining with itself.  The people who actually pay the bills are not invited to the meetings.  But they are expected to cover the stupendous losses when the arrangement reaches – and goes far beyond – the point where a private-sector union’s demands would destroy either the union, or the business it sells labor to.

Here you have the final absurd extension of that symbiosis: IRS employees who draw government paychecks from the public treasury, but actually work for the unions.  And they’re not drawing small paychecks, either.

More than 40 of these employees, who do not work for the taxpayers and spend 100 percent of their time serving union interests, are paid over $100,000 a year.  Americans are nervous about the IRS’ new responsibilities next year under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and are wary of the new resources IRS will require to undertake them.  There have also been a number of recent concerns raised about IRS targeting of conservative and other groups.  As such, it is now more important than ever that IRS show it is a good steward of taxpayer funds, and prioritizes its mission and the interests of hardworking taxpayers.

I would add that it’s also more important than ever for the IRS to function as something other than a muscular arm of the biggest special interest in the world.  We’ve already been told that disciplining the people responsible for the Tea Party persecution scandal is nearly impossible because of union rules.  Now we’re learning that well-compensated government employees are actually being provided to the union as free labor.

Coburn and Gingrey provided the Acting IRS Commissioner with a list of probing questions about how much “official time” these government employees are giving to government employee unions, how they’re spending that time, how their performance is evaluated, who picks up the slack back at IRS headquarters while they’re doing union stuff, and how much worse all this is going to get under ObamaCare, which the Internal Revenue Service will be enforcing.  A larger question might be why anyone expects efficiency, transparency, or accountability from a government whose boundaries are increasingly difficult to discern.

(Hat tip: Eliana Johnson of National Review.)

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