Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Republicans' IRS scandal evaporates

There are still valid questions to be raised about the procedures used by some IRS employees to assess whether some activist and pressure groups qualified for tax-exempt status on the basis of their claims to be non-partisan and/or non-political.  And the whole system of campaign financing and its regulation is a mess, especially in the wake of the Supreme Court's act of blatant right-wing judicial activism in its Citizens United decision.  (That's the real scandal.)   But the attempts of Republicans and right-wing propagandists to blow this incident up into a Watergate-type mega-scandal, especially their assertions (or insinuations) that this was a campaign of political disruption and intimidation aimed specifically at right-wing Tea Party groups, have turned out to be unfounded.

Given all the news coverage of this pseudo-scandal, I suspect that many people are still not aware that it has turned out to be fundamentally bogus.  So it might be worth sharing a few explanations of the facts that have come out so far.

=> Let's start with one specific aspect of this pseudo-scandal, the right-wing claims that this was all a "Nixonian" conspiracy masterminded from the White House with partisan intent.  At the beginning, that hypothetical scenario didn't seem totally out of the realm of possibility, at least in principle.  But as various investigations and examinations have proceeded, including the Republicans' own hearings in the House, it turns out that there is precisely zero evidence to support this line of speculation, and a good deal of evidence that refutes it.  On Friday Jonathan Chait put this in a fairly mild way (Mitch McConnell Realizes IRS Scandal Is Over:
Mitch McConnell delivered a speech today at the American Enterprise Institute to officially signal that the IRS scandal has entered its post-fact phase. When the IRS first revealed that its Cincinnati office had attempted to enforce its nonprofit laws using a search function that disproportionately impacted conservatives, Republicans were certain it must have come from the White House. They were going to follow the facts. But all of the facts point in the same direction, which is that the Obama administration had nothing to do with it at all. That was the conclusion of the agency’s inspector-general report, as well as the House Oversight Committee’s own interviews, which the Republican majority tried to suppress and which (when the Democrats released them) showed the operation was an independent, well-intentioned effort to enforce the law led by an IRS official who happens to be a conservative Republican.

McConnell’s speech is an attempt to reframe the issue in a way that it can survive the utter absence of incriminating facts. One method he employs is to flip around the burden of proof:  [....]

McConnell also argues that the scandal is larger than facts about illegality or misconduct — “what we’re dealing with here is larger than the actions of one agency or any group of employees.” By "larger," McConnell means the scandal is just the same nebulous suspicions they have always had about Democrats running the government:
The attacks on speech that we’ve seen over the past several years were never limited to a few Left-wing pressure groups or the DISCLOSE Act. They extend throughout the federal government, to places like the FEC, the FCC, HHS, the SEC, and as all Americans now know — even to the IRS. These assaults have often been aided and abetted by the administration’s allies in Congress.
The “Disclose Act” is a proposed measure that would require unregulated political groups to publicly disclose their donors. Back when campaign finance reformers were trying to actually put limits on outside donations, McConnell was a fierce advocate of this idea. Since the Supreme Court killed spending limits, disclosure has become the best reformers can hope for, and McConnell has now turned against it and indeed portrays it as a sinister Nixonian attempt to suppress free speech.

The belligerent and borderline-paranoid tone of McConnell’s speech today is a kind of covered retreat, signaling the IRS scandal’s turn into a vague trope that conservatives use with other members of the tribe, the way liberals liked to say “Halliburton” during the Bush years, to signal some dark beliefs they don’t need to back up.
=>  But Chait's account, which is narrowly focused on the question of White House involvement, dramatically understates the extent to which the whole Republican scandal-narrative has unraveled.  On Tuesday Andrew Sullivan laid out the full picture ... which includes the embarrassing discovery that the errant IRS procedures were not exclusively, or even primarily, targeting right-wing groups.  Sullivan also wondered how Peggy Noonan, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Fox News, and the rest of the right-wing propaganda apparatus will respond to the fact that their scandal has evaporated.  Will they acknowledge that they went over the edge and said a number of things that now look pretty foolish and irresponsible?  Don't hold your breath.
It was the legitimate one: not the Benghazi bullshit or a surveillance program checked by Congress and the courts, whose secrecy was the scandal. This was the accusation that Barack Obama was Richard Nixon, ordering the IRS to target conservative – and only conservative – groups in their legitimate attempt to check on whether “social welfare” groups actually were just campaign machines. To give a sense of how far the Republican partisans went with this – completely unproven – allegation, let’s leave Darrell Issa behind, shall we? He’s such a creep he’d say anything anyhow to advance his own career.

Let’s go to one Peggy Noonan, once a relatively sane, if lugubrious, columnist for the WSJ. She’s been running around yelling Watergate for a while now, and just accused the president of an impeachable attempt to use the power of government to destroy his political foes:
One of the great questions about the 2012 campaign has been “Where was the tea party?” They were not the fierce force they’d been in the 2010 cycle, when Republicans took back the House. Some of us think the answer to the question is: “Targeted by the IRS, buried under paperwork and unable to raise money.” …

Think about the sheer political facts of the president’s 2012 victory. The first thing we learned, in the weeks after the voting, was that the Obama campaign was operating with a huge edge in its technological operation—its vast digital capability and sophistication. The second thing we learned, in the past month, is that while the campaign was on, the president’s fiercest foes, in the Tea Party, were being thwarted, diverted and stopped.

Technological savvy plus IRS corruption. The president’s victory now looks colder, more sordid, than it did.
And so she reaches back to her “Romney-Will-Win” pre-election mindset. He did. But it was stolen! Now check out how far the WSJ’s James Taranto has run with this Nixonian meme (yes, the right is now anti-Nixon, when it comes in handy):

Screen Shot 2013-06-25 at 10.22.18 AM

Notice, en passant, that the WSJ is now indistinguishable both in party line and total hysteria from Fox News and talk radio (not that it’s ed-page was anything but extreme, but at least it was smart). Now check out the latest details from the IRS about 501 (c) 4 and 501 (c) 3 entities:
The instructions that Internal Revenue Service officials used to look for applicants seeking tax-exempt status with “Tea Party” and “Patriots” in their titles also included groups whose names included the words “Progressive” and “Occupy,” according to I.R.S. documents released Monday. … One such “be on the lookout” list included medical marijuana groups, organizations that were promoting President Obama’s health care law, and applications that dealt “with disputed territories in the Middle East.” … “Common thread is the word ‘progressive,’ ” a lookout list instructs. “Activities appear to lean toward a new political party. Activities are partisan and appear as anti-Republican.” Groups involved more generally in carrying out the Affordable Care Act were also sent to the I.R.S. for “secondary screening.” And “occupied territory advocacy” seemed subject to the most scrutiny of all.
So we begin to see the actual truth (and where it usually is, Page A14): the IRS was rightly scrutinizing a whole slew of new groups claiming to be all about “social welfare” and checking to see how politicized they were – on both sides. Most of those on the progressive side were seeking 501(c)3s – not 501(c)4s so the parallel isn’t exact. But it sure suggests nothing of any malign nature here. Par exemple:
Ameinu, which on its website calls itself a “community of progressive Jews,” received its 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status on May 28 — five years after applying. IRS agents peppered the group with 18-page surveys and lingered for months without follow-up, Hiam Simon, national director of Ameinu, said in a telephone interview. He said he was looking at a 4-inch thick folder of Ameinu’s communications with the IRS. “I think they were painting with a broad brush, with worries about Middle East ties to terrorism,” he said of the IRS. “I don’t think it was caused by malice. Ignorance is too strong a word, too. They simply weren’t nuanced enough or careful enough.”
They’re not perfect, but this is the critical fact:
Werfel said his review of the agency’s actions hasn’t found evidence of intentional wrongdoing or involvement from outside the IRS. That’s consistent with the findings so far of congressional investigators.
So time’s up, Peggy. Put up or shut up – especially with the outrageous smear that the president was behind this. The IRS was trying to flush out bogus non-political groups on both sides. That’s what we pay them to do. Since the targeting used classic code words on right and left, it may have been unwise as an administrative policy, but it sure wasn’t illegal or scandalous. And you can see why, given the volume of applications, these might have been shortcuts to expedite the process.

I think this scandal just evaporated into thin air.

Please let me know if you find any right-wing outlets that have pushed this untrue story that are actually reporting on this new IRS data (this attempt by NRO is lame or needs further clarification); and whether – God help us – they are apologizing and correcting. Over to you, Mr O’Reilly. And Ms Noonan.

Where’s your Richard Nixon now? Breaking into Republican Party offices?
Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub