Madam President, I rise to speak out against the alarming reports that have recently surfaced by the IRS and the Department of Justice.
As the Federal agency tasked with administering the U.S. Tax Code, the IRS has an extraordinary influence on the lives of all Americans, from all walks of life and all points of view. As citizens we have the absolute right to expect the IRS to be free from political influence, with taxpayers treated fairly and enforcement carried out in an unbiased manner. Unfortunately, in recent days we have learned our expectations are far adrift from reality.
Last week the Internal Revenue Service acknowledged a history of targeting conservative politically active groups during their process of seeking tax-exempt status. This practice first involved flagging groups concerned about government spending and debt. Ironically, such targeting comes at a time when poll after poll indicates the Federal Government's out-of-control spending and our $17 trillion debt are top concerns for all Americans. I can tell my colleagues from my experience it is the top concern for Nebraskans.
Despite these legitimate concerns and the patriotic desire of Americans to effect change in government, the IRS worked to impede these organizations with one of the bluntest instruments of government: regulatory abuse. The IRS demanded inordinate amounts of documents from these groups, including donor lists, which served to unfairly delay the tax-exempt certification of these well-intentioned groups.
This news is alarming on multiple fronts. First and foremost, it is unacceptable that the IRS would blatantly target any of our fellow citizens, let alone groups of Americans whose views are at odds with their own. As the Washington Post noted in today's lead editorial: ``Any unequal application of the law based on ideological viewpoint is unpardonable--toxic to the legitimacy of the government's vast law enforcement authority.'' I couldn't agree more.
These activist groups were simply trying to exercise their First Amendment rights of peaceable assembly and free speech--the cornerstone of our democracy. Yet their reward for expressing concern about the direction our country is going was to be singled out in an attempt to prevent them from fully engaging in the democratic process.
It has been reported that the targeting of these Americans--and muffling of their voices on the pressing issues facing our country--began in 2010. What has happened since then? The passage of very consequential pieces of legislation, including ObamaCare and the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Act, multiple debates on how to address our Nation's dire fiscal situation, two national elections, including last fall's Presidential election.
As alarming as the actions of the IRS are, I am even more troubled by the IRS trying to hide these actions. When an IRS official last week finally acknowledged and apologized for the targeting of conservative groups, it was more than 3 years after the practice is said to have begun. It was more than 1 year after the current Acting IRS Commissioner, Steven Miller, is reported to have become aware of the targeting, but it doesn't stop with Mr. Miller.
As the Washington Post noted: ``Lois Lerner, the head of the IRS's tax-exempt organization office, knew about the targeting in 2011; she seemed to say Friday that she learned about it from news reports last year.''
These were not the malicious actions of a rogue agent or simply another example of government incompetence; instead, this was a clear, methodical abuse of government power to discriminate against whole groups of Americans simply because of their political beliefs.
Despite their awareness of abuse, officials from the IRS failed time after time to disclose this targeting and little effort was made to end the practice. Even as recently as their admissions on Friday, the IRS continued to engage in coverups and half-truths. In fact, IRS officials seem to go out of their way to deny wrongdoing.
In testimony last year before the House of Representatives, then-IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman said there was ``absolutely no targeting.''
After years of neglecting to inform Congress of this practice, the long overdue admission was the result of diligent lawmakers exercising oversight along with a soon-to-be released report from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.
The time for muted outrage and limp apologies has passed. The American people deserve nothing less than absolute assurance that this practice will not happen again. Those who are responsible must be held accountable and removed from their positions. The policies that enabled this gross abuse of power must be changed immediately.
It is also worth noting the IRS is one of the lead Federal agencies in charge of implementing ObamaCare. It does not appear the IRS is in any condition to implement this highly controversial law, particularly as public trust in this agency continues to plummet.
Just yesterday we learned of another breach of public trust and another potential violation of our First Amendment freedom--the freedom of the press. Press reports indicate the Department of Justice secretly obtained extensive telephone records of reporters and editors for the Associated Press in what the head of the news organization called a ``massive and unprecedented intrusion'' into how news organizations gather the news. According to the Associated Press's legal counsel, the records obtained included those from reporters working out of the House of Representatives press gallery.
While it is unclear at this point how many reporters were targeted and why, the effect of this data gathering is clear: intimidation of the press and suppression of free speech.
This is unacceptable. A free and unfettered press is vital to any democracy. Moreover, the scope of this information gathering is simply beyond the pale--and likely beyond precedent.
The Attorney General and the President owe the American people answers, and they owe them now. These recent abuses of power by both the IRS and the Department of Justice are just the latest episodes of this executive branch's disturbing pattern of overstepping its lawful powers.
We have seen this in the President's unconstitutional recess appointments. We have seen this in the EPA's disclosure of classified information of cattlemen to activist environmental groups. We have seen this in a lack of forthrightness with our government's response to the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.
The result of this methodical government overreach has a powerful chilling effect on citizens. There is no place for that in a democracy. There is no place for that in the United States. The American people deserve a government that jealously guards the liberties of its citizens, not a government that tramples on our basic constitutional rights.
I yield the floor and I suggest the absence of a quorum.