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The Unaccountable Executive 

If the President doesn’t run the government, then who does?

Every day brings new revelations about who knew what about the IRS targeting conservative groups during President Obama’s re-election campaign, but the overall impression is of a vast federal bureaucracy run amok. While the White House continues to peddle the story of a driverless train wreck, taxpayers are being treated to a demonstration of the dangers of an unwieldy and unaccountable administrative state. Look, Ma, no hands!

In his press events, Mr. Obama has said that while he learned about the Cincinnati rogues on the news, he plans to “hold accountable those who have taken these outrageous actions.” But the White House began its response by pushing the line that the IRS is an “independent agency,” and Mr. Obama has since given the impression that he sits atop a federal government which he does not, and could not possibly, control.

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White House senior adviser Dan Pfieffer encouraged that fable on this Sunday’s news shows, implying that the Treasury’s internal process for handling the unfair treatment of political targets trumped the President’s right to know. When CNN political correspondent Candy Crowley asked Mr. Pfieffer why the White House and top Treasury officials weren’t notified, he explained that Treasury’s investigation was ongoing and “Here’s the cardinal rule: You do not interfere in an independent investigation.

Now there’s a false choice. The Treasury Inspector General’s report, for starters, was an audit, not an inviolable independent investigation. He lacked subpoena power and could bring no criminal charges. Having the President know of the IRS’s mistakes so that he could act to correct the problem was not a bridge too far or even clouding the purity of the process. Those things could have been done simultaneously without compromising Treasury’s investigation.

At Darrell Issa’s House oversight hearing on Wednesday, Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration J. Russell George was criticized for not notifying Congress of the IRS wrongdoing when he became aware of it in July 2012. Emails between the IG’s office and committee staff show the IG’s office repeatedly evaded Congressional inquiries on the progress of the investigation.

All IGs appear before Congress, but they are really answerable to the President who is responsible for what goes on in the IRS and what the agency actually does. If the IRS is not operating in a way that treats taxpayers evenhandedly and in accordance with its guidelines and mission, it is up to him to change the personnel and make any other corrections so that the taxing power of the federal government is legal and fair. If that isn’t the case, voters deserve to know exactly who is accountable for the decisions of the agency that takes a healthy fraction of their income every year.

Mr. Obama’s lesson in lack of political accountability also seems to be trickling down: Lois Lerner was in charge of the IRS division that discriminated against conservative groups. But rather than take responsibility, Ms. Lerner on Wednesday invoked her Fifth Amendment right not to testify at the House hearing, though not before she read a statement saying that she had “not done anything wrong.

Asked by Texas Senator John Cornyn at a Finance Committee hearing on Tuesday whether he owed conservative groups an apology, former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman said that he was “certainly not personally responsible for creating a list that had inappropriate criteria on it” though he was sorry that it had happened on his watch.

There’s a certain infantilization of the federal government here that should be especially alarming to taxpayers who have ever crossed paths with the IRS. The agency has the power to make citizens lives miserable, ruin their businesses and garnish their wages. Anyone facing an audit is unlikely to get away with the evasions now in display in the federal bureaucracy.

If the scandal is showing anything, it is that the White House has a bizarre notion of accountability in the federal government. President Obama’s former senior adviser, David Axelrod, told MSNBC recently that his guy was off the hook on the IRS scandal because “part of being President is there’s so much beneath you that you can’t know because the government is so vast.

In other words, the bigger the federal government grows, the less the President is responsible for it.Mr. Axelrod’s remarkable admission, and the liberal media defenses of Mr. Obama’s lack of responsibility, prove the tea party’s point that an ever larger government has become all but impossible to govern. They also show once again that liberals are good at promising the blessings of government largesse but they leave its messes for others to clean up.

Alexander Hamilton and America’s Founders designed the unitary executive for the purpose of political accountability. It is one of the Constitution’s main virtues. Unlike grunts in Cincinnati, Presidents must face the voters. That accountability was designed to extend not only to the President’s inner circle but over the entire branch of government whose leaders he chooses and whose policies bear his signature.

If the President isn’t accountable, then we really have the tea party nightmare of the runaway administrative state accountable to no one. If Mr. Obama and his aides are to be taken at their word, that is exactly what we have.

A version of this article appeared May 23, 2013, on page A16 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Unaccountable Executive.