Lois Lerner shows the GOP why it should invest in government

Republicans in Congress have held up Lois Lerner as the embodiment of everything they despise about government. As a member of the agency that administers the tax side of “tax and spend liberalism” GOP legislators have accused Lerner of politicizing IRS inquiries in order to target conservative political groups. Claims of partisan behavior followed by an array of missing emails made political waves that the GOP hoped would drown its most disliked federal agency in a sea of scandal.

But, a funny thing happened on the way to the political theater: congressional Republicans showed why it is important to spend money and invest in government. In fact, while the IRS scandal put the Treasury Department at the center of congressional criticism, it is another division of Treasury that has swooped in to save the day, and the GOP owes it a debt of gratitude. The foil in this political drama is a little known institution: the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration or TIGTA.

What is TIGTA and what does it do?

The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) is an OIG housed within the Treasury department that oversees the IRS specifically and all aspects of tax administration through audits and investigations. The Office of Audit conducts reviews of IRS programs and operations in order to ensure effectiveness, efficiency, and compliance with all applicable laws. TIGTA’s Office of Investigation investigates instances of waste, fraud, and abuse by both IRS employees and outside individuals who attempt to interfere with tax administration. As explained on TIGTA’s website, the investigations division has four main divisions which handle everything from standard investigations into bribery or corruption to sensitive reviews of high-level IRS employees operating in U.S. embassies abroad. This office also administers proactive programs such as employee training and internal control reviews to deter future fraudulent activity. Just last fiscal year, TIGTA completed 95 audits and 3,117 investigations, ranging in topics from IRS’s implementation of ACA provisions to protecting taxpayers from identity theft.

Why TIGTA is the GOP’s best friend

As the IRS scandal and the investigation around Lois Lerner’s behavior intensified, congressional efforts were ultimately stymied by an IRS claim that thousands of Lerner’s emails had been lost—and were unrecoverable. The lost emails frustrated congressional investigators and led to charges of “cover up” and “corruption.” And frankly, those accusations were not misplaced. Any party investigating the actions of the other, faced with the same set of facts and circumstances would have cried foul just as loudly.

Imagine for a moment if an investigation into political targeting in the Bush administration (a la its mid-2000s GSA scandal) resulted in a claim that emails were lost, but that those emails contained nothing incriminating anyways. Would Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have simply responded, “phew, glad that’s resolved”? Absolutely not. Such claims would have simply intensified Democrats’ resolve to get to find the truth.

Back to present day: the Lerner emails were lost; congressional investigators could not find them. The IRS, charged with looking into the matter, could not find the emails either. Enter TIGTA. As the IRS’ watchdog, fighting against mismanagement, waste, fraud, and abuse, it began an investigation of its own. As part of its investigation, TIGTA found the “lost” emails—thousands of them—and turned them over to both IRS officials and Congress to aid in the Lerner investigation. These emails that the IRS believed would be vindicating and Congress thought would be the smoking gun in a political scandal were found. And all of that came as a result of the hard work of an inspector general charged with overseeing IRS.

Inspectors general matter, and the GOP should love them

In a recent paper, “Sometimes cutting budgets raise deficits: The curious case of inspectors’ general return on investment,” we lay out precisely why it is important for Congress to fund OIGs. These offices play an important oversight role in government. They help federal agencies function more effectively and help Congress investigate wrongdoing and mismanagement. In one of the most eye catching, media heavy scandals of the Obama presidency, it ultimately was an OIG that served as the more effective investigatory body.

Despite these benefits, Congress hinders the work of OIGs every year. Through across the board budget cuts, these offices are forced to do more with less. In uncertain budget environments where OIGs—like all offices and agencies—are often kept in the dark as to their annual appropriation until late into the fiscal year, planning becomes impossible. Reductions in investigations, an inability to replace departing personnel, and reductions in morale combine to ensure that OIGs struggle to do their jobs well.

The effects of these threats to OIGs are serious and should concern Democrats and Republicans alike. Not only do OIGs provide essential benefits to government effectiveness, including combating one of Republicans’ biggest concerns: waste, fraud and abuse. They assist Congress in performing its oversight role, and all this while ringing up a positive return on investment. That’s right; many of the large OIGs return to government coffers far more money than they cost to operate—a budgetary savings. Despite all of these benefits, budget cuts and funding uncertainties rain down on the offices of inspectors general—government wide—and the result is a set of watchdogs unable to watch as effectively as they should.

It’s unclear whether lessons will be learned from the Lois Lerner investigation. Will IRS do a better job in the future when investigating political groups? Will attempts to clarify policies around such investigations be effective? Will Congress manage to do a better job overseeing agencies? Much of this is unlikely.

However, one lesson is obvious and easy. Congress should invest in government. As unpalatable as the Lerner case is to congressional Republicans, they should be delighted by the actions of TIGTA and other OIGs across government who perform their jobs in a highly effective, cost-saving way. Rather than cutting budgets in these offices, Congress should consider boosting inspectors’ general budgets in an effort to make government work better. As we noted in our paper, not only can cutting budgets raise deficits, but often leads to government becoming more dysfunctional. If Congress is serious about stopping future scandals like the one surrounding IRS, the solution is not to exact punishment on budgets of the Treasury Department. The solution might be to give Treasury a raise.