Unbridled Power: Inside the Secret Culture of the IRS
By Shelley L. Davis
284 pp., $25
It might be possible, I suppose, to dismiss this book as an act of revenge by a resentful former employee who just didn't fit in. If there was ever someone ill-fitted to her outfit, it was Shelley L. Davis, the first, and only, staff historian at the Internal Revenue Service.
The nation's tax collector has, she writes in "Unbridled Power: Inside the Secret Culture of the IRS," systematically tried to prevent its story from being told. Documents have been hoarded in obscure corners of the IRS's massive Washington headquarters. They've been kept from the eyes of investigators and historians, and frequently, simply destroyed. All of this contrary to federal law that requires the preservation of government records.
That is Davis's central complaint. The very culture of the agency she joined and stuck with for seven years made it nearly impossible to do the job she was paid to do - chronicle the evolution of one of American government's pivotal and most powerful bureaucratic entities.
She's not alone in this criticism. In February, a number of parties, including the American Historical Association, launched a civil suit charging the IRS with destruction of valuable documents.
These documents, by the way, are not your tax returns, or mine. They aren't the volumes of correspondence between the tax agency and average taxpayers. Those records are, by practice and law, kept safe and confidential.
More likely, historians would want a peek at internal documents detailing the IRS's interminable, and largely unsuccessful, attempts at computerization. Or documents indicating that the agency has at times turned its enforcement powers against citizens for political reasons. Or documents related to in-house disciplinary proceedings. Or even the investigation of famous tax cheats like Al Capone.
By a twist of bureaucratic perverseness, Davis argues, the IRS has made all these categories of information subject to the post-Watergate law designed to protect taxpayer data from political exploitation.
Davis took her post in 1988, after a number of years in a similar position at the Pentagon. But generals, it seems, for all their pulling of rank and protection of national secrets, actually want their story to be preserved and told. Not so the IRS.
In effect, Davis asserts, everything generated by the agency is defined internally as taxpayer information and is thus protected from the light of day. The suit mentioned above, plus various congressional probes and the newly appointed commission to restructure the IRS, may shake loose some fresh data and give Americans better insights into the bureaucratic monolith that siphons off a quarter or more of their earnings each year.
Davis's own efforts to prevent the destruction of important historical documents by the agency - through such extraordinarily uncooperative acts as trying to sic the National Archives on her own bosses - brought the bureaucracy's wrath down on her. Instead of sparking a far-reaching investigation of IRS document-preservation practices, she found herself under investigation.
Her writing sometimes has the tone of someone smarting from having been given the boot. One doesn't get much feeling of studied objectivity from this historian. Yet one can't read this book to the end without feeling that Davis has pried open an important door, one that our lawmakers should insist on opening wider.
* Keith Henderson is an editorial page writer for the Monitor.