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The GOP pivots on the IRS scandal

May 17, 2013|By Jon Healey
  • Steven Miller, right, who was forced out as acting commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, pauses while speaking during a House Ways and Means Committee hearing Friday with J. Russell George, U.S. Treasury inspector general for tax administration.
Steven Miller, right, who was forced out as acting commissioner of the Internal… (Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg )

The scandal surrounding the Internal Revenue Service's handling of applications for tax-exempt status by "tea party" groups and other right-leaning organizations took a sharp turn at the House Ways and Means Committee on Friday. In addition to decrying how those groups' applications were flagged for extra scrutiny, Republicans on the panel -- especially Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) -- argued that the Obama administration had covered up the problem for more than a year.

"Listening to the nightly news, this appears to be just the latest example of a culture of cover-ups -- and political intimidation -- in this administration," Camp said, according to my colleagues Melanie Mason and Jim Puzzanghera. "It seems like the truth is hidden from the American people just long enough to make it through an election."

For those who've been blissfully ignorant of the goings-on in Washington over the last six months, Camp was alluding to l'affaire Benghazi. There too the criticism has shifted from the event itself to the way the administration talked about the event.

It's a familiar tactic among prosecutors -- if you can't prove that people violated the law, you may still be able to prove that they didn't tell the truth about what they'd done. It also fits into a long-running GOP meme about President Obama and his administration, namely, that it abuses power and the public trust.

The attacks in Benghazi raised real issues around embassy security and the uneasy balance between trying to respect a fledgling government and maintaining safety for U.S. diplomats. But questions about the State Department's use of Libyan security personnel have been lost amid the debate over whether the White House tried to deceive the public about Al Qaeda's involvement in the attacks two months before the election.

The fact that we're still talking about a possible cover-up more than eight months after the fatal attack, and more than seven months after the administration publicly acknowledged that it was, in fact, the work of terrorists, speaks to the staying power of such allegations. And for the GOP, they present a less nuanced, more easily digestible point of attack on Obama than questions about how best to secure a diplomatic mission in a potentially hostile country making the difficult transition to democracy. Oh, and by the way, any question about security invariably raises the issue of how much money Republicans have pushed Congress to cut from the administration's budget for protecting diplomats.

The IRS scandal is still in its early days, with much yet to be learned. In particular, there's a lot still to be explored about who came up with the techniques used to flag applicants for tax-exempt status for extra scrutiny, why they chose those techniques and the methods used to review the applicants who'd been flagged.

Even if the IRS was simply trying to focus its reviews on the applicants with the most obvious interest in political activity -- which 501(c)(3) groups were forbidden to engage in and 501(c)(4)s could do only in limited amounts -- the way it went about flagging groups seems ludicrously one-sided. Beyond that, it's impossible to justify the intrusive requests for information that some of the flagged applicants received; they served little purpose other than to identify the political leanings of a group and its donors, not the activities the group was engaged in.

Nevertheless, a number of Republicans on Capitol Hill are steamed at the IRS for what its top officials told lawmakers -- or rather, what they didn't tell them. Conservative groups have been complaining for a few years that their applications for tax-exempt status were being delayed, they were receiving inappropriate requests for information and, in some cases, that confidential information about their tax returns was being disclosed. Yet on multiple occasions over the last two years, IRS officials told Congress that conservatives weren't being targeted.

(Yes, these officials were either civil servants or, in the case of former IRS Commissioner Douglas Schulman, an appointee of President George W. Bush. But as the New York Times reported Friday, Obama administration appointees in the Treasury Department were told last year about the inspector general's inquiry into the scrutiny of conservative groups' applications for tax-exempt status. So there's at least that connection, as tenuous as it may be.)

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