A Bureaucrat Could Explain the IRS Scandal

James Greiff is an editor for Bloomberg View. He was Wall Street news team leader at Bloomberg News and senior editor for Bloomberg Markets magazine. He previously reported on banking for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer.
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The targeting of conservative political groups by the Internal Revenue Service looks like a scandal of the first order. IRS workers charged with determining whether so-called social-welfare groups deserved tax-exempt status screened for organizations with words such as "Tea Party," "Patriots" or "9/12" in their names.

Depending on who's doing the talking, the motives of those responsible for the targeting, or ordered their underlings to do so, range from nefarious to benign. To some, IRS workers (no doubt, all registered Democrats) were aiding President Barack Obama, drawing up the equivalent of Richard Nixon's "enemies list" in an effort to intimidate or stymie groups that likely opposed the president's re-election. To others, the IRS inspector general's report released this week confirms that workers were confused by ambiguous rules over "political activity" and "social welfare" -- whatever that language means.

There might be something else at work. The IRS, with more than 100,000 employees and dozens of offices across the country, is a bureaucracy. Certain rules, first laid out in the early 20th century by German sociologist Max Weber, govern their behavior.

One of Weber's insights was that bureaucracies tend toward self-preservation, a characteristic also common to organizations such as religious orders and corporations.

A half-century after Weber came Cyril Northcote Parkinson, a British historian and novelist whose research was distilled into Parkinson's Law: Work expands to fill the time available for its completion. Combine this with Weber and you come to the conclusion that bureaucracies indulge in make-work, largely to justify their existence.

William Niskanen and James Buchanan, leading exponents of what is known as public-choice theory, a branch of economics focused on the incentives that guide behavior in the public sphere, also scrutinized bureaucracies. Public-choice theory suggests that the actions of those in the political realm are guided by self-interest, just as they are in other areas.

So it may not be that hard to understand why some tax-exemption applications were still pending three years after they were filed and that some organizations received burdensome and unnecessary questions. This would form the perfect basis for a bureaucrat to make the following argument: We're overworked, behind schedule and can't figure out what to make of the tangled and contradictory guidance in IRS rules on social-welfare groups. But there's a simple solution -- in next year's budget give us more money and hiring authority.

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To contact the author on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net