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“The Media Has Cast Its Traditional Role Aside”: Washington Circus Steals The Spotlight From Where It Belongs

Can President Barack Obama put out the brush fires that are sucking the air out of his second-term agenda? Can he stop the spread of mini-scandals that are consuming Washington?

No, he cannot. The president could (unconstitutionally) shutter every Internal Revenue Service office and fire every staffer, from top-ranking executives to lowly administrative aides, and it would hardly matter. Republicans would simply change the terms of the debate and impeach him for destroying the 16th Amendment.

Official Washington is now all spectacle, all circus, all manufactured outrage abetted by a press corps addicted to controversy. Actual policies are slighted while political posturing takes the stage; simmering problems are ignored while canned contretemps and stale theater consume all the attention. That has been true for years now, but it just keeps getting worse.

There are serious failings at the heart of each of the sideshows currently consuming officialdom. The most egregious concerns the IRS, where bureaucrats singled out conservative groups for a vetting that veered into political harassment. That not only violates deep-rooted ideals of fairness and justice, but it also contravenes federal law. It raises the specter of the sort of political harassment carried out by Richard Nixon, who wielded the IRS as a bludgeon against his political adversaries, and by J. Edgar Hoover, who ordered tax audits of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

While IRS-gate reflects poorly on Obama’s leadership, there is not a scintilla of evidence that he had anything to do with it. Further, the president has responded with aplomb: He has forced the resignation of the acting head of the agency as the FBI launches a criminal investigation. (That’s about all the administration can do since federal rules insulate IRS bureaucrats from elected officials, all in an effort to prevent scandals such as those mentioned above.)

If Republicans doubt the president’s ability to impartially oversee an investigation of his own administration, they might appoint a special prosecutor. Instead, they have promised more hearings on Capitol Hill — more partisan spectacle, more canned outrage, more useless theater.

Though the national press corps sticks to its unwritten rule of blaming Democrats and Republicans equally for the mess our national politics have become, the facts show that responsibility cannot be equally apportioned. Democrats don’t eschew partisan mudslinging, but they are not very good at it. The GOP, by contrast, has raised it to an art form.

Take a look at the last two presidential administrations. Though Bill Clinton reigned over an era of peace, prosperity and a balanced budget, the GOP impeached him on charges that grew out of an adulterous affair. George W. Bush took the country to war on the wings of a lie, tortured detainees and wrecked the budget. Democrats pointed fingers and conducted investigations, but they did not impeach him.

The news media, meanwhile, breathlessly report every email, every accusation, every pointed finger. They parse political winners and losers. Will the Benghazi hearings damage Hillary Clinton’s chances for the presidency in 2016? Will the IRS controversy hurt immigration reform? Will the controversies heal Republicans’ internal divisions?

As much as it troubles me to say so, Washington journalists have cast aside their traditional roles as trumpets of a substantive truth. They rarely uncover genuine abuses of power, cast a skeptical eye on untoward developments (such as the warmongering that led to the invasion of Iraq) or even explain the nuances of policy. Heck, they barely bother to inform the public when yesterday’s huge scandal becomes suddenly less, well, scandalous.

Take the budget deficits. Wasn’t it just two months ago that Republicans were insisting that the Obama administration was sending the entire nation to the poorhouse? What happened to those deficits?

As it turns out, they are shrinking, just as many mainstream economists had predicted. As the economy recovers, the federal government pays out less in assistance and takes in more in taxes.

You haven’t heard a lot of chatter about that or about the people hurt by the continuing cuts that were supposedly made necessary by that looming deficit. Many struggling Americans are finding their childcare options limited, their community clinics closed, their assistance for housing and meals shrinking — with little notice from official Washington. That’s the real scandal.

 

By: Cynthia Tucker, The National Memo, May 18, 2013

May 20, 2013 Posted by | Media, Politics | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Pick A Narrative And Go With It”: Lazy, Incoherent And Contradictory Political Media Critiques

Regular readers may recall that I’ve long been fascinated by the trouble President Obama’s detractors have had with understanding what it is about him they dislike. The result is a series of rhetorical attacks that are incoherent and contradictory.

He’s a ruthless Chicago thug and a “wuss.” He’s a bystander who goes golfing too much and an activist president who engages too much. He’s sticking to the Bush/Cheney script on national security and he’s putting us at risk by abandoning the Bush/Cheney national security agenda. He’s cutting cherished entitlement programs like Medicare and he refuses to cut entitlement programs like Medicare. He’s waging a class war against the rich and he’s coddling millionaires.

This week, as much of the political world tries to stick to the dubious line that the White House is engulfed in scandals, we’re seeing the same phenomenon once more. Greg Sargent makes a nice catch this afternoon:

One current storyline has it that all of these stories could converge to create a sense that Obama’s embrace of government activism has shaded into Nixonian abuses of power — revealing that Obama personally harbors a far more intrusive, overbearing, and even sinister approach to governing than he previously let on.

But another current storyline has it that the White House’s pushback on these scandals — the claims of a firewall between the Justice Department and the White House, the assertions of no connection to the IRS abuses — reveal a president who is weak and unable to control the government he presides over.

Good point. Just today, the Washington Post reports that the recent uproars “add evidence” to detractors’ claims that President Obama is a power-hungry leader who “has not acted within the constraints of the Constitution.” And also today, the New York Times reports that the controversies that have captured the Beltway’s attention present President Obama as a helpless “onlooker” who seems unable to “use his office.”

Greg added, “Obviously, these narratives can’t both be true at once. The scandals can’t demonstrate that Obama’s true dictatorial streak has finally been revealed while simultaneously supporting the idea that they’ve shown him to be too weak to control a government that has run amok.”

Ordinarily, I give the “pick a narrative and go with it” advice to the president’s Republican detractors, but in this case, it seems more appropriate to remind pundits and the political media establishment that their own preconceived narratives are just as contradictory.

Indeed, in this case, the critiques are especially incoherent since the so-called “scandals” generating so much chatter about “a White House in crisis” don’t actually relate much to the White House. None of the stories — Benghazi, the IRS, AP subpoenas — points to a tyrannical dictator or a hapless onlooker.

To connect three disparate stories of varying degrees of legitimacy and importance into a mega-scandal is lazy. So, too, is the embrace of competing narratives that cancel each other out.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, May 16, 2013

May 20, 2013 Posted by | Media, Politics | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Doing More With Less”: Outgoing IRS Chief Blames Underfunding For ‘Foolish’ Mistakes

Testifying in front of the House Ways and Means Committee, acting IRS commissioner Steve Miller apologized for his agency Friday.

“I want to apologize on behalf of the Internal Revenue Service for the mistakes that we made and the poor service that we provided,” Miller said. “The affected organizations and the American public deserve better.”

Agents at the IRS decided to take a shortcut in 2010 that has created an uproar, “centralizing” a number of factors that could raise suspicions that these fledgling non-profits might not be focused primarily on ”social welfare.” One of those factors — and here’s where they made their biggest mistake — was focusing on groups with “Tea Party” or “Patriot” in their names. Later they revised this policy to focus on  “political action-type organizations involved in limiting/expanding government, educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights, social economic reform movement,” according to the IRS Inspector General’s report.

The result? Some 300 groups were identified for extra scrutiny — among them, 70 were Tea Party groups. It’s not clear how many groups were turned down, yet it’s clear at least one Democratic group was.

Miller — who is stepping down from his position at the request of the administration — insisted that the actions were not intended to target conservatives.

“I think that what happened here was that foolish mistakes were made by people trying to be more efficient in their workload selection,” he said. “The listing described in the report, while intolerable, was a mistake, and not an act of partisanship.”

Under questioning by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), Miller pointed out that though progressive groups were not identified by name, the IRS actually collected more information on left-leaning groups than Tea Party groups. The lifelong bureaucrat even rejected the notion that his agency was “targeting” anyone, insisting that was a pejorative term to describe the “listing” the agents were doing.

Republicans continually tied the scandal to attacks on the IRS in general, often citing audits by their supporters as proof of the agency’s overreach.

“The reality is this is not a personnel problem. This is a problem of the IRS being too large, too powerful, too intrusive and too abusive of honest, hardworking taxpayers,” said Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI).

But Miller had another explanation for why his agents pursued such questionable practices — funding. The commissioner asked the committee to increase funding to his agency, citing budget constraints as a major reason why agents sought shortcuts to identify questionable applications.

“In the last 10 years, the budget of the IRS, adjusted for the size of the population and inflation, has come down 17 percent,” according to tax expert David Cay Johnston.

Committee members offered several examples of groups being denied 401(c)(4) status or delayed endlessly. However, there’s no evidence that suggests Republican spending was hindered by this IRS’s shortcut.

“Of the 21 organizations that received rulings from the IRS after January 1, 2010, and filed FEC reports in 2010 or 2012, 13 were conservative,” writes OpenSecretsblog‘ Robert Maguire.  ”They outspent the liberal groups in that category by a factor of nearly 34-to-1, the Center for Responsive Politics analysis shows.”

 

By: Jason Sattler, The National Memo, May 17, 2013

May 20, 2013 Posted by | Budget, Internal Revenue Service | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“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

May 20, 2013 Posted by | Congress, Internal Revenue Service | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“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

May 20, 2013 Posted by | Campaign Financing, Internal Revenue Service | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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