Monday, July 7, 2014

Johnnie Walters dies and so does his spirit

Let us remember Johnnie M. Walters, who died last week.

He has been forgotten, though people should honor what he did.  I do. 

In 1972, he was the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service.  He had been picked by President Richard M. Nixon for that job.  The president probably thought he should be so happy to have the title that he would follow orders.

“I want to be sure he is a ruthless son of a bitch,” Nixon said, “that he will do what he’s told, that every income-tax return I want to see I see, that he will go after our enemies and not go after our friends.”

Walters succeeded a commissioner who would not obey Nixon.  But nobody told this unknown tax lawyer from South Carolina that he had a special set of instructions from the president.

Still, the wheels were grinding.  John Dean, the White House counsel, searched for “how we can use the available federal machinery to screw our enemies.”

A good way, it turned out, was to get the IRS to carry out tax audits of “enemies.”  Dean called Walters to the White House and, in 1972, gave him Nixon’s infamous “enemies list.” As a Senate staff member and campaign official for Sen. George McGovern, Nixon’s election opponent, I was on the list.

Walters balked. The Watergate scandal involving the Nixon campaign break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee was public, and Walters warned Dean that using the IRS for political purposes would create a far bigger scandal.  But Dean insisted.

The IRS commissioner told Treasury Secretary George Schulz of his orders, and Schulz advised him to lock the list in his safe.  Three days later, Schulz was ordered to fire Walters if he did not cooperate.  Schulz’s own job was at stake.

Walters turned the list over to the staff chief of the congressional committee overseeing the IRS.  He told the staffer that he could judge that the IRS did not go after anybody on the list.
His actions halted Nixon’s audit plan.  As Nixon’s new term began, Walters was gone from the federal government. 

I have always been grateful to Walters for not exposing me to an IRS witch-hunt.  We all should be grateful to Walters, a man of great integrity in a sensitive government position, who had the courage to stand up to the president.

This story is relevant today, because efforts go on these days to “use the available federal machinery to screw” somebody’s “enemies.”  The actions are not as downright illegal as Nixon’s, but they may be as threatening to the American political system as was the “enemies list.”

Each house of Congress can freely adopt its own rules, no matter how far from the original and customary understandings that worked well for about two centuries.  In recent years, those rules have been applied to “screw” political opponents rather than to produce good government.

Senate Democratic leaders have blocked GOP proposals to amend pending legislation.  By this simple action, any possibility of compromise has been lost.

The majority Democrats could almost certainly defeat any proposed amendment, so it is difficult to justify this blocking action other than as a way to prevent possible embarrassment for their senators stemming from their opposition to an enemy amendment.

The flip side is the radically expanded use of the filibuster by Republicans who have insisted that any important matter takes 60 votes to pass rather than the simple majority set by the Constitution.

To prevent the president from avoiding the filibuster by making appointments to federal office when the Senate is in recess, the Republicans keep the Senate in phony sessions to prevent the enemy, the Democratic president, from making recess appointments

In eight years, President George W. Bush made 171 recess appointments.  All could have been blocked by the Democrats, but none was.  In almost six years, Obama has made 32.

Last week, the Supreme Court said that the Republican recess tactic was constitutional.  But the Democrats had already blunted its effect by changing the filibuster rule to require only a simple majority to end debate on most appointments.

Also last week, Speaker John Boehner announced he would ask the House of Representatives to authorize a lawsuit against President Obama for having failed to obey the law.  Because Congress cannot pass such a bill without presidential action, this move is pure harassment of the enemy.

The “available federal machinery” is certainly being used to “screw” somebody.  Unfortunately, it’s the people who suffer when the spirit of Johnnie Walters dies.