The GOP scandal machine kicked into a new gear this week when the Internal Revenue Service disclosed late Friday that two years of e-mails belonging to IRS official Lois Lerner are missing and apparently permanently lost.
Lerner has, for some time, been the focal point of the Republican Party’s grand theory of Tea Party persecution as the IRS official supposedly leading politically motivated probes of tax-exempt conservative groups. Coupled with Lerner’s repeated invocation of her Fifth Amendment rights in congressional hearings, the missing e-mails are treated as prima facie evidence of a nefarious plot. “If you think, by the way, that the Lois Lerner e-mails are lost, you need to wake up. There is no way those e-mails are gone,” Rush Limbaugh thundered on Monday. “[The administration is] thinking nobody’s gonna try to stop them, nobody’s gonna push back, nobody’s gonna call them on it. It’s just the way that they’re gonna deal with it.”
While Republicans’ grand theory about the IRS “scandal” has a few holes, to put it lightly, they are correct to be mad here. It’s unacceptable that a high-ranking government official’s e-mails are missing.
Moreover, this is not an uncommon occurrence. Federal record-keeping borders on abysmal. Time and again crucial documents from many different agencies have gone missing. This episode reveals a much more banal form of federal noncompliance and malfeasance than what’s alleged by Limbaugh and company—but a much more real scandal.
In 2010, only 5 percent of federal agencies had a “low risk” of losing records, according to a review by the National Archives. Meanwhile, 46 percent were classified as having “high risk” and 49 percent were at a “moderate risk.” The 2012 review, the most recent one conducted by the National Archives, showed some improvement—20 percent of federal agencies were in the “low risk category” and 36 percent were “high risk.” That’s encouraging, but still far from an acceptable standard.
The basic problem is the federal government has been very slow to adapt its technology to the demands of permanently archiving millions of electronic records, mainly in the form of e-mails. The Federal Records Act theoretically requires agencies to do so, but enforcement is rare, penalties are relatively low, and only the federal government can force compliance.
The government, incidentally, appears to be in no particular rush to fix the system. In August 2012 the National Archives and the Office of Management and Budget said agencies don’t need to have a system to manage their permanent and temporary records in an easily accessible electronic format until December 31, 2016.