Whether one thinks the demiscandals being howled about in Washington should or should not resonate more widely, they don’t.
According to a Gallup report released Thursday, “The amount of attention Americans are paying to the I.R.S. and the Benghazi situations is well below the average for news stories Gallup has tracked over the years.” (The Associated Press phone records case wasn’t mentioned.) Why might this be? I have a few theories:
CREDIBILITY People know that the Internal Revenue Service is the conservatives’ bogeyman. It’s the agency that collects the taxes that Republicans hate so much. Some Americans see taxes as, at worst, a necessary nuisance; Republicans see them as an absolute evil. The I.R.S. is the agency that collects the wealth from “us” for the government to redistribute to “them.” As National Journal pointed out Friday, “The agency also implements much of the country’s social policy through the tax code.” We all know that anything with “social” in its name activates the conservative gag reflex.
And on the Associated Press front, it just doesn’t ring true to have Republicans standing up as defenders of the “lame-stream media.” It’s like the person with the club feigning common cause with the baby seal. People just don’t buy it.
Furthermore, Republicans have exhibited a near-pathological need to say anything, no matter how outlandish, that would invalidate the Obama presidency. This has left them with little credibility now that there may be legitimate problems. This is the story of the political party that cried “Kenyan.”
COMPLEXITY Where is Benghazi? Seriously, folks, quickly point it out on a map. Thought so. Now, to the controversy: the talking points — what they said, and the machination of how that was altered, and whether Al Qaeda should have been immediately blamed, and whether the word “terror” should have had an “-ist” or an “-ism.” Seeking to find the killers of four dead Americans is honorable; endless testimony about a fussed-over script used to explain the tragedy is mind-numbing.
UNPOPULARITY It is clear that the Justice Department overreached on the Associated Press scandal and that its strong-arm tactics are likely to have a chilling effect. But Americans are not big fans of mass media. A November Gallup poll found that only a fourth of Americans rate the honesty and ethical standards of journalists highly. Even bankers ranked higher.
As for Tea Party groups that received extra scrutiny from the I.R.S., an Associated Press-GfK poll released last month found that fewer than a fourth of Americans say they support the group. The Tea Party may well be passé.
The policy issue is a different story, as The Washington Post pointed out this week: “In 2010, the Supreme Court’s landmark ‘Citizens United’ decision cleared the way for corporations and labor unions to raise and spend unlimited sums of money, and register for tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(4).”
That decision was extremely unpopular. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released nearly a month after the decision was handed down found that 80 percent of Americans opposed it.
So an unpopular movement applied for tax-exempt status under conditions made possible by an unpopular court decision, in order to influence politics with unfathomable amounts money from unnamed donors? Good luck gaining sympathy for that.
ZEALOTRY The Congressional Tea Party Caucus founder, Michele Bachmann, who never misses a chance to say something asinine, suggested to the conservative site wnd.com that it was “reasonable” to worry that the I.R.S. might use Obamacare to kill conservatives.
The article reads, in part:
“Since the I.R.S. also is the chief enforcer of Obamacare requirements, she asked whether the I.R.S.’s admission means it ‘will deny or delay access to health care’ for conservatives. At this point, she said, that ‘is a reasonable question to ask.’ ”
“Reasonable” and “Bachmann” don’t even belong in the same conversation, let alone the same sentence, and yet she remains one of the most visible spokeswomen for the movement.
Even former House Speaker Newt Gingrich warned Republicans against overreaching. In an NPR interview that aired Friday, Gingrich, referring to the impeachment of President Clinton, said, “I think we overreached in ’98 — how’s that for a quote you can use?”
He continued, advising his party to be “calm and factual.” Ha! That’s too rich, and too late. Republicans are already invoking the I-word.
Republicans are their own worst enemies at times like these, unable to leave well-enough alone, and missing chances to honestly engage the public as they race off the cliff in the supercharged outrage machine.
By: Charles M. Blow, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, May 17, 2013
“The Real IRS Scandal”: Lawmakers Who Pushed The Agency To Rely On Bone-Headed Tactics By Refusing To Fund It To Do Its Job
David Simon, of “The Wire” fame, once responded to the idea of “doing more with less” by saying, “That’s the bullshit of bean counters who care only about the bottom line. You do less with less.” For the Internal Revenue Service, the line should perhaps be updated to “you do less with less, and also cause a scandal.”
The IRS, of course, was recently caught singling out conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status for extra scrutiny. IRS employees in a Cincinnati office used search terms such as “tea party” and “patriot” to find organizations they deemed worthy of more attention in their request to be exempted from paying federal taxes. (The irony of tea party groups complaining about not getting effectively subsidized by the government in a timely enough fashion will be left for another time.)
The “scandal” has already caused the acting commissioner of the IRS to lose his job and prompted a hearing on Capitol Hill Friday during which lawmakers expressed their outrage that the tax agency could act in such a manner. But Congress deserves its own share of blame for the debacle.
Now, the IRS employees who were searching for “tea party” surely should have known better. But the fact of the matter is that the agency has been dealing with a deluge of applications for tax-exempt status at a time when its budget is shrinking. The size of the IRS workforce has dropped 9 percent from its 2010 level, and the agency has seen its budget cut in each of the last two fiscal years. This fiscal year, the amount the IRS spends per capita (meaning per citizen) will be 20 percent lower than it was in 2002, according to an analysis by tax expert David Cay Johnston.
Meanwhile, as Reuters reported, “The IRS has seen the number of groups applying for 501(c)4 status double in the wake of a January 2010 Supreme Court decision that loosened campaign-finance rules.” The Obama administration has requested budget increases for the IRS, but Republicans in Congress refuse to approve them. So it’s perhaps not surprising that already overworked employees at the agency looked for a few shortcuts.
And things are likely not going to get any better this summer when the IRS shuts down entirely for five days due to budget cuts under the so-called “sequester.” These cuts don’t just inconvenience people who need tax assistance; they cost the Treasury money. The IRS estimates that every dollar spent on enforcement brings in $4 to $5 in additional revenue, so cutting the IRS budget is akin to the government cutting off its nose to spite its face.
My colleague Robert Schlesinger noted today that the real scandal surrounding the attack at the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, is not who edited which talking point when, but that the State Department was denied funds to beef up consular security. Much the same can be said for the IRS. The scandal is not about the agency’s shortcuts, but the lawmakers who pushed it towards relying on bone-headed tactics by refusing to give it the money it needs to do its job.
By: Pat Garofalo, U. S. News and World Report, May 17, 2013
“Tea Party Is An Election Category”: The IRS, Non-Profits, And The Challenge Of Electoral Exceptionalism
What the IRS scandal really shows us is that it’s getting harder and harder to draw a line between electioneering and political speech.
As the report of the IRS Inspector General shows, the agency’s scrutiny of conservative groups applying for non-profit status was, more than anything, a clumsy response to a task the IRS is ill-equipped to carry out – monitoring an accidental corner of campaign finance law, a corner that was relatively quiet until about 2010.
That corner is the 501(c)(4) tax-exempt organization, belonging to what are sometimes called “social welfare” groups, which enjoy the triple privilege of tax exemption (though not for their donors), freedom to engage in some limited election activity, and, unlike other political committees (PACs, SuperPACs, parties, etc.), freedom from any requirement to disclose information about donors or spending. The use of (c)(4)s as campaign vehicles didn’t originate with the Citizens United decision in 2010 (Citizens United, the organization that brought the case, was already a (c)(4)), but the decision seems to have created a sense that the rules had changed, and even small groups – especially, apparently, local Tea Party organizations — rushed to create (c)(4)s.
501(c)(4)s are not prohibited from engaging in political speech of most kinds. They are free to be “biased” without jeopardizing their tax exemption. They can advocate for or against legislation, they can lobby the government or criticize it. They don’t have to make any effort to be “non-partisan” – for example, they can support a proposal that is only supported by members of one party, or directly advise only members of one party. And they can engage in some activity directly intended to influence the outcome of an election, as long as that doesn’t constitute the organization’s primary purpose.
There’s some confusion about the definition of “primary purpose,” discussed in great depth elsewhere, but what the IRS was trying to do was to identify organizations that seemed more likely to be heavily involved in electoral activity. Since the organizations were new, there was no way to look at their actual activities to see whether they were mostly electoral. So the agency had to rely on clues in the applications, like names and telltale phrases. If organizations had words like “Democrat” or “Republican” in their titles, for example, it would be reasonable to look more closely at their election activities, or possible future activities, than an organization that called, for example, “Save the Turtles.” I’m told that organizations with the names of political parties do receive extra scrutiny, even if in some cases, like “Students for a Democratic Society,” the word might mean something unrelated to the name of the party. That’s what the closer scrutiny would find out.
“Tea Party” in 2009 and 2010 was unquestionably an election category – there were “Tea Party” candidates and there was a “Tea Party Caucus” in Congress. It was not unreasonable for the IRS to use that phrase as an indicator that an organization using that phrase might be more inclined to engage in elections. There are comparable phrases on the left – for example, the term “Netroots” might suggest election involvement, as there were groups that identified and endorsed “Netroots” Democratic candidates in 2006 and later. Perhaps there were simply fewer organizations applying for (c)(4) status with that word, or they came in before the 2010 flood, or perhaps the IRS did screen on that word – we don’t know.
While there’s a perfectly plausible case for the IRS to use flag-words that indicate an election-focused movement, the actual questions asked of the groups do raise some concerns. If accurate, they did seem to go beyond evidence that these organizations were primarily engaged in elections, such as questions about lobbying and the role of family members.
But the reason these questions are complicated for the IRS, or for any agency assigned to police these complicated distinctions, is this: The line between robust political speech and influencing elections has become frightfully difficult to draw. Finding the right line around what is an “election” is really the fundamental problem in campaign finance. Almost everyone accepts the premise of “electoral exceptionalism” – elections are structured and require some particular rules, different from the rules that apply generally to political speech. The rule in most states that keeps campaigners 75 or 100 feet from the voting booths is the most obvious uncontroversial restriction on political speech, and there is broad acceptance of the idea that direct contributions to candidates and campaigns should be limited to prevent corruption and dependence. But what happens after that? What about outside spending that looks just like campaign spending? We used to think there was a clear distinction between “issue ads” that were expressing a view on an issue and “electioneering communications” that were the equivalent of campaign contributions. That distinction is actually what the Citizens United case was about — the provision of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act that defined broadcast communications that mentioned a candidate within 30 days before a primary or 60 days before a general election as electioneering, which had to be financed with regulated funds.
That was an improvised line then, and it’s gotten even blurrier since. Part of the problem is partisanship – it used to be, for example, that there were environmentalists in both parties, supporters of social spending in both parties. A political ad about the environment was just that. But what’s an ad or brochure attacking “Obamacare” during the election year? Every Republican opposes it, and they’ve given it the name of the president. The Tea Party was based on issues, yes, but above all else, it was based on unflagging, total opposition to Obama and congressional Democrats.
To figure out where election advocacy begins and regular political speech ends in these cases was certainly more than mid-level IRS bureaucrats in Cincinnati could handle. But it’s not an easy challenge for anyone. All the noise about IRS “targeting” and about free speech and corporate speech is a distraction from a real challenge of money in elections: finding an agreement on the line around an “election,” and establishing some clear rules for what happens within that line in order to ensure that elections are fair and open and don’t lead to corruption.
By: Mark Schmitt, The National Memo, May 16, 2013
The IRS is under siege for investigating conservative political groups applying for tax-exempt status. But the real problem wasn’t that the IRS was too aggressive. It was that the agency focused on the wrong people—“none of those groups were big spenders on political advertising; most were local Tea Party organizations with shoestring budgets,” writes The New York Times—and wasn’t aggressive enough. The outrage that Washington should be talking about—what my colleague Chris Hayes calls “the scandal behind the scandal”—is how the Citizens United decision has unleashed a flood of secret spending in US elections that the IRS and other regulatory agencies in Washington, like the Federal Election Commission, have been unwilling or unable to stem.
501c4 “social welfare” groups like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity and Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform—which don’t have to disclose their donors—spent more than $250 million during the last election. “Of outside spending reported to the FEC, 31 percent was ‘secret spending,’ coming from organizations that are not required to disclose the original sources of their funds,” writes Demos. “Further analysis shows that dark money groups accounted for 58 percent of funds spent by outside groups on presidential television ads [$328 million in total].”
IRS guidelines for 501c4 groups state that “the promotion of social welfare does not include direct or indirect participation or intervention in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office…a section 501(c)(4) social welfare organization may engage in some political activities, so long as that is not its primary activity.” It’s ludicrous for groups like Crossroads GPS—which spent at least $70 million during the last election—to claim that its primary purpose is not political activity. Only the likes of Karl Rove would believe that running attack ads against President Obama qualifies as social welfare.
So what did the IRS do about this blatant abuse of the tax code by some of the country’s top corporations and richest individuals? Virtually nothing. “When it comes to political spending, the IRS is more like a toothless tiger,” wrote Ken Vogel and Tarini Parti last year in a story headlined, “The IRS’s ‘feeble’ grip on big political cash.”
It’s obvious that our Wild West campaign-finance system needs more, not less, scrutiny and much tighter, not looser, regulation. Yet conservative groups are exploiting the IRS scandal to further dilute regulatory agencies that are already on life support. Writes Andy Kroll of Mother Jones:
The IRS’s tea party scandal, however, could hinder the agency’s willingness to ensure politically active nonprofits obey the law. The IRS will likely operate on this front with even more caution, taking pains not to appear biased or too aggressive. That in turn could cause the agency to shy away from uncovering 501(c)(4) organizations that do in fact abuse their tax-exempt status by focusing primarily on politics.
The Rove’s of the world would like nothing more than for the public to believe that conservative groups had too few opportunities to influence the 2012 election and were wrongly persecuted by evil Washington bureaucrats. Yet the 2012 election should have taught us precisely the opposite lesson—that our patchwork regulatory system is far from equipped to deal with the new Gilded Age unleashed by Citizens United. As Rep. Keith Ellison told Hayes last night: “We need to redouble our efforts to bring real campaign-finance reform forward.”
By: Ari Berman, The Nation, May 14, 2013
If corporations are people, as the Supreme Court pretends, they certainly are loudmouths, constantly telling us how great they are and spreading their names everywhere.
Amazingly, though, these corporate creatures have suddenly turned demure, insisting that they don’t want to draw any attention to themselves. That’s because, in this case, corporations are not selling, they’re buying — specifically, trying to buy public office for their pet political candidates by funneling millions of corporate dollars through such front groups as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In turn, the fronts use the money to air nasty attack ads that smear the opponents of the pro-corporate candidates.
Why do corporations need a middleman? Because the ads are so partisan and vicious that they would appall and anger millions of customers, employees and shareholders of the corporation. So, rather than besmirch their own names, the corporate powers have meekly retreated behind the skirts of Republican political outfits like the Chamber.
But don’t front groups have to report (at least to election authorities) who’s really behind their ads, so voters can make informed decisions? No. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizen United edict in 2010, such groups can now pour unlimited sums of corporate cash into elections without ever disclosing the names of their funders. This “dark money” channel has essentially established secret political campaigning in America.
That’s why shareholders and other democracy advocates are asking the Securities and Exchange Commission to rule that the corporate giants it regulates must reveal to shareholders all political donations their executives make with corporate funds. After all, the millions of dollars the executives are using to play politics don’t belong to them — it is shareholder money. And by no means do shareholders march in lockstep on which political candidates to support or oppose.
Hide and seek can be a fun game for kids, but it’s infuriating when CEOs play it in our elections. Last year, corporate interests sought to elect their candidates by hiding much of their politicking not only from company owners but also from voters. In all, $352 million in “dark money” poured into our 2012 elections, the bulk of it from corporations that covertly pumped it into secretive trade associations and such scams as “social welfare charities,” run by the likes of Karl Rove and the Koch brothers.
Since underhanded, anonymous electioneering puts a fatal curse on democracy, the SEC should at least compel corporate managers to tell their owners — i.e., the shareholders — how and on whom their money is being gambled in political races. It’s a simple reform, but — oh, lordy — what a fury it has caused among the political players.
A rare joint letter from the U.S. Chamber, Business Roundtable and National Association of Manufacturers has been sent to the CEOs of the 200 largest corporations in our country, rallying them to the barricades in a frenetic lobbying effort to stop this outbreak of honest, democratic disclosure.
House Republicans are even going to the extreme of trying to make it illegal for the SEC to let shareholders (and the voting public) know which campaigns are being backed by cash from which corporations. Hyperventilating, these powerful scaredycats claim to be intimidated by the very suggestion that they tell the people what they’re doing in public elections.
Their panic over having a little sunlight shine into their deepest bunker reveals just how destructive they intend dark money to be for our democracy. Ironically, the Supreme Court’s chief assumption in allowing unlimited corporate cash into the democratic process was that shareholders would be informed and involved, and provide public accountability for their companies’ political spending.
Even Justice Antonin Scalia, long a cheerleader for corporate politicking, is no fan of hiding it from the electorate: “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage,” he has written, adding that a campaign “hidden from public scrutiny” is anathema to self-governance. He also deems it cowardly: “This does not resemble the Home of the Brave,” he pointedly noted.
By: Jim Hightower, The National Memo, May 8, 2013