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posted: 5/19/2013 5:00 AM

Government's heavy hand

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So, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration has investigated the IRS investigation of conservative groups. And the FBI has launched a criminal investigation of the IRS. And the State Department's Office of Inspector General is investigating the Accountability Review Board that investigated the administration's response to the Benghazi terror attack. And House committees including Armed Services, Foreign Affairs, Judiciary, Oversight and Government Reform, Ways and Means and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence are variously investigating the Benghazi matter, the IRS and the Justice Department investigation of The Associated Press.

And all the lawyers rejoiced.

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If there is any thread that unites these scandals, it is government heavy-handedness. Seizing the phone records of, say, three editors and reporters would constitute a leak investigation. Seizing the phone records of perhaps 100 is a fishing expedition and a form of intimidation. "They're sending a clear message to our sources," says National Journal's Ron Fournier. "Don't embarrass the administration or we're coming after you.'"

The IRS' heightened scrutiny of conservative organizations was not a collection of unfortunate clerical errors. It involved demands, under penalty of perjury, for the "minutes of all board meetings since your creation," summaries or copies of material passed out at meetings and information on donors. Long IRS silences were punctuated with ultimatums.

It is impossible to predict the course of any scandal. The trail of IRS wrongdoing may end in a bureaucrat's outbox. Or practices generally known to senior IRS officials in the summer of 2011 may have been more broadly discussed and concealed within the government. The Justice Department press dragnet may have been needed to deal with a major national security risk. Or it may have been a disturbing case of executive overreach that only serves to highlight the administration's selective release of favorable intelligence. This is the reason the media love scandals: There is no telling where the discovery of a third-rate burglary might lead.

But the immediate effect of this rare alignment of controversies may be in the realm of political ideas. Over the last several decades, Americans have held not just conflicting opinions on government policy but differing visions of government itself. New Dealers saw federal power as essential to correct the fatal defects of capitalism. Lyndon Johnson imagined a Great Society "where the meaning of man's life matches the marvels of man's labor" -- releasing the ambitions of government under cover of rhetorical vagueness. Reagan revolutionaries generally saw the federal government as hapless and irresponsible.

President Obama's rhetorical vision of federal power has been positive but limited: It is a friendly benefactor to the middle class, though occasionally forced to get stern with the wealthy. The goal is to "create ladders of opportunity" within a capitalist framework.

Over the years, Obama's overreach has consistently undermined his rhetorical case. Much of his lavish stimulus package seemed funneled toward favored interests -- less the building of ladders than the digging and refilling of holes. Obamacare involves a massive expansion of federal power and the proliferation of mandates, boards and rules. These have hardly been creative or subtle uses of government to empower individuals.

Now comes the added blow of scandal. In each recent case, government used power in ways that were insular, highly politicized and intimidating. And however individual responsibility is eventually assigned, these attributes are not aberrations in the Obama era. The administration tends to view its actions as above scrutiny and its opponents as beneath contempt. (Note that Obama simultaneously displayed both tendencies in his recent press availability, arguing that those who question the administration's Benghazi account also "dishonor" the Benghazi victims.)

The result is a paradox. As the ambitions of government in the Obama era have expanded, respect for the institution of government has reached new lows. These scandals add another layer of cynicism. And the practical political effects are very real. Who is more likely this month than last to trust the federal government with the implementation of Obamacare (in part by the IRS), the enforcement of new gun-control laws or the securing of the Southern border?

Republicans are fully capable of overreaching in strategy and philosophy -- making every disagreement into an article of impeachment and conveying a disdain for government itself. Perhaps this is what Obama hopes will happen if he baits the GOP. But this would not solve the nation's problem. We need a federal government that is limited, respected and effective within its proper bounds. And none can call this the Obama legacy.

Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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