Rick Santorum’s Role in the Making of an IRS Chief

By now, we’re all familiar with the scandal that has plauged the Internal Revenue Service and the Obama Administration. Many questions are left to answered, and there is some hope that we will discover more on Wednesday when the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will question Douglas Shulman, former head of the IRS.

Some Americans may be asking themselves how the IRS got stuck with such inept leadership — it is, after all, a government agency, but that’s a topic for another post. The answer may lie with former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA).

Ike Brannon, a senior fellow and director of research at the R Street Institute, tells the story of how Santorum’s temper and objection to the removal of a tax deduction on charitable giving lead to the Senate passing on Dean Zerbe, who was slated to be come the nominee for the top post at the IRS:

When it came time to replace the retiring IRS commissioner in 2007, Senator Charles Grassley, ranking member on the Senate Finance Committee, offered up one of his senior staffers on the committee by the name of Dean Zerbe.

The president’s people had no real objection to the choice: Zerbe had been on the committee for a long time, and he was considered a tax code savant as well as a shrewd lawyer, albeit one with sharp elbows. But the elbows hit the ribs of people on both sides of the aisle because Zerbe was very aggressive (at his boss’s behest) at rooting out tax dodges and finding ways to raise revenue without increasing taxes.

But Zerbe lost his viability for the post when his aggressiveness flared into a shouting match with a U.S. senator.
One of those vociferously objecting was Senator Rick Santorum. At the time he was a dead man walking — the polls already showed him behind his challenger by double digits and few people gave him much of a chance to remain in the Senate. Staffers are acutely aware of such things.

That perception no doubt exacerbated the scene. The more that Santorum talked about how much he hated the tax break, the louder and louder he became, and the more direct he was at leveling the criticism at Zerbe himself.

Suddenly, Zerbe responded in kind and began yelling at Senator Santorum — a breach of decorum in a world where no one dares rebuke a senator. Their voices grew louder and they began to approach one another. Once they got near each other saner heads stepped in and separated the two. Grassley pulled Zerbe out of the room and the meeting abruptly ended.

Brannon notes that the confrontation cost Zerbe the nomination. President Bush appointed Shulman instead. The rest, as they say, is history. Santorum, who is nothing more than another big government Republican, lost his bid for re-election in 2006 by 18 points and failed to secure the GOP presidential nomination in 2012. Zerbe won $104 million lawsuit on behalf of an IRS whistlerblower just last year.

Would things have been different if Zerbe were running the IRS? It’s impossible to say, but you can’t help but wonder.

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