There is a peculiar response coming from Washington regarding new questions about the Internal Revenue Service's decision to give the Church of Scientology the tax exemption granted to churches.
In a city where every politician searches for publicity and demands for investigations are commonplace, no one has heard a peep from Congress. It has been more than a week since the New York Times raised serious concerns about the circumstances surrounding the IRS' decision to reverse course in 1993 and give the Church of Scientology its long-sought tax exemption.
No member of Congress has expressed concern or asked the IRS to explain why it abandoned 25 years of tax policy and court decisions. Among the missing in action: U.S. Sens. Bob Graham and Connie Mack of Florida, and U.S. Rep. Michael Bilirakis of Palm Harbor, whose district includes Scientology's spiritual headquarters in Clearwater. The IRS decision cost local governments in Bilirakis' district millions of dollars, because it forced the county to drop the fight to collect property taxes on most of Scientology's properties.
Surely, the IRS has not suddenly become everyone's favorite government agency. It has long been a convenient target for critics of secretive, inefficient bureaucracies. The latest debates concern the agency's outmoded computers, questions about politically motivated audits and efforts to run the mammoth operation more like a business.
Yet no member of Congress has dared to inquire why the IRS made a most unbusinesslike decision to circumvent normal procedures and grant the Church of Scientology a tax exemption. When Fred Goldberg, the former IRS commissioner who orchestrated the exemption, appeared before the House Ways & Means Committee recently, it apparently did not occur to anyone to ask him about it. Other committees responsible for overseeing the IRS also are showing no interest.
Congressional investigations have been initiated on far less important questions than those raised by the Times article. How did Scientology leaders convince Goldberg to meet with them? Why did Goldberg create a special IRS committee to negotiate a deal? What impact did Scientology's pressure tactics have on the decision? Why has the IRS refused to disclose the details of the agreement that resulted in the exemption?
These are legitimate questions that concern the integrity of the IRS as much as the Church of Scientology's intimidation tactics. Unfortunately, no one in Congress appears brave enough to seek the answers.