Yet another scandal has rocked the hallowed halls of Washington, adding to the growing list of indignities that have undermined Americans’ faith in government and destabilized Obama’s presidency. Obama didn’t hold his own umbrella. Yes, it’s almost too shocking too believe, but during a Thursday press conference with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogon, Obama had two uniformed Marines hold an umbrella to protect him from a light Washington drizzle! And in direct contravention of MCO P1020.34F of the Marine Corps Uniform Regulations which specifically prohibits Marine’s in uniform from brandishing a parasol-like device. Scandalous…
Of course, we’re kidding. At its worst the umbrella snafu was a PR misstep (really dude, you can’t hold your own umbrella?), but in a week where the President couldn’t sneeze without making negative headlines, it surely didn’t help. And that’s part of the problem – the public, abetted by the media, has become really interested in things that sound like scandals at the peril of ignoring real, but boring-sounding, wrongdoing. As the left-wing blogger Ezra Klein writes,
“There’ll be more hearings, and more bad press for the Obama administration, and more demands for documents. But – and this is the key qualification – absent more revelations, the scandals that could reach high don’t seem to include any real wrongdoing, whereas the ones that include real wrongdoing don’t reach high enough.”
The point Klein is trying to make is that the Internal Revenue Service’s intentional targeting of conservative groups is the most important and most sinister of the scandals, but it’s also getting the least attention. Why? Because as soon as someone says the words “IRS” and “tax returns” eyes start to glaze over and minds start to wander.
But they shouldn’t. This is a big, big story. One that is deep, multifaceted, and has large potential implications for the political narrative. Part of the reason it’s so important is that the IRS’ actions were instigated by Congressional Democrats, not exactly uninterested, unbiased actors. As the New York Times reported in 2010:
“The Internal Revenue Service is caught in an election-year struggle between Democratic lawmakers pressing for a crackdown on nonprofit political groups and conservative organizations accusing the tax agency of conducting a politically charged witch hunt.”
Adding to the political dynamic is the fact that the IRS knew of wrongdoing, but decided not to release any information until after the election. Even more troubling is that the Obama Administration was made aware of the problems, but chose to withhold the information. As the New York Times reports:
“The inspector general gave Republicans some fodder Friday when he divulged that he informed the Treasury’s general counsel he was auditing the I.R.S.’s screening of politically active groups seeking tax exemptions on June 4, 2012. He told Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin “shortly after,” he said. That means Obama administration officials were aware of the matter during the presidential campaign year.”
Could this scandal have potentially changed the course of the election? Perhaps. It surely would have garnered significantly more scrutiny and attention than in the barren news-land of May. Either way, the implications are troubling. The Obama Administration was aware of politically-motivated, First Amendment-chilling actions that demonstrably prevented some conservative groups from having a voice in the policy debate. And yet they did nothing. And if that’s enough to shake your belief in government’s ability to impartially administer the law, then get this, courtesy of ABC News:
“The Internal Revenue Service official in charge of the tax-exempt organizations at the time when the unit targeted tea party groups now runs the IRS office responsible for the health care legislation.
Sarah Hall Ingram served as commissioner of the office responsible for tax-exempt organizations between 2009 and 2012. But Ingram has since left that part of the IRS and is now the director of the IRS’ Affordable Care Act office, the IRS confirmed to ABC News today.”
Not exactly heartening news given that the IRS announced that it will be hiring as many as 16,500 new employees to enforce Obamacare’s numerous forays into tax policy. They’ll be enforcing things like the individual mandate, which requires Americans to buy government-approved health insurance, and the employer mandate, which requires employers to offer minimum essential coverage affordably.
“If we’ve learned anything this week, it’s that the IRS needs less power, not more,” said Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) after the scandal came out.
Harris is exactly right, but his point applies more broadly – Washington as a whole could do with a little less power. Hopefully the momentum of the past week for true change won’t be lost in the ever-shifting sands of the 24-hour news cycle. Because this my friends is a real scandal, one that in the words of Ezra Klein should “reach high enough” to not only hold our attention, but also demand change.