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“The Blurred Line Between Caricature And Reality”: Republicans Are Nothing If Not Predictable

It’s become a running joke: when Republican get bored with the latest manufactured outrage of the day, they turn to the Benghazi and IRS “scandals” as a standby. Indeed, it’s been widely assumed over the last several weeks that as the Affordable Care Act improves, GOP lawmakers would have no choice but to return to their favorite faux political controversies.

They are nothing if not predictable. Here’s Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) yesterday:

“Since the terrible tragedy that took four American lives in Benghazi, we’ve had difficulty, to put it mildly, trying to get to the bottom of this,” the second-ranking Senate Republican said during a Google Hangout session he held while the Senate is on recess.  ”Now the goal is to talk to the Benghazi survivors – people who were actually there who could tell the truth and expose what happened and hold the people responsible accountable.  This has been a cover up from the very beginning.”

And here’s House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) soon after:

The House’s chief investigator says the FBI is stonewalling his inquiry into whether the agency and the Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative group True the Vote for special scrutiny, and Rep. Darrell E. Issa is now threatening subpoenas to pry loose the information from FBI Director James B. Comey Jr.

Mr. Issa, California Republican, and Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican, are leading the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s IRS inquiry. They also said the FBI is refusing to turn over any documents related to its own investigation into the IRS, which began in the days after an auditor’s report revealed the tax agency had improperly targeted tea party groups for special scrutiny.

The White House should probably consider this a good sign. Remember, as recently as last week, congressional Republicans were reluctant to talk about literally any issue other than the Affordable Care Act, afraid that any distraction from the dysfunctional website might let Democrats off the hook. Even the reaction to the “nuclear option” was muted because Republicans wanted all of the political world’s focus solely on health care – and nothing else.

And it now appears that phase is ending and far-right lawmakers are back to Benghazi and the IRS. If that isn’t affirmation of the White House’s health care initiative getting back on track, nothing is.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, December 3, 2013

December 4, 2013 Posted by | GOP, Republicans | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Getting Secret Money Out Of Campaigns”: It’s In The Public Interest To Disallow Sleazy Secret Money In Campaigns

The Internal Revenue Service spent years averting its eyes while clever campaign operatives abused the tax code for political purposes. Advocacy groups, mostly on the right, wanted to run attack ads while concealing the source of their money, and they came up with a brilliant way to do it: claim to be “social welfare” groups, which are allowed to hide donors.

Federal statutes say these groups can only engage in social welfare activity, but the tax agency decided political activity was fine as long as it wasn’t the primary purpose of the group. That helped create the torrent of secret money that poisoned the last few federal elections. The I.R.S. never explained, though, what kinds of activities are considered political, or why these groups, also known as 501(c)(4)’s, should be allowed to participate in campaigns at all.

On Thursday, long after the abuse became too rampant to ignore, the I.R.S. took the first tentative steps at reining in the problems it helped create. It proposed a definition of “candidate-related political activity,” an important starting point in determining what tax-exempt groups are really allowed to do. But it will have to do much more than that if it wants to be taken seriously as a regulator on this battlefield.

According to a press release from the Treasury Department, the agency said the new definition of political activity would include ads or other communications that clearly advocate for a candidate or party, or ads that mention a candidate within 60 days of a general election (30 days for primaries). That’s a good start for a definition, though 60 days is far too narrow a window — many of these attack ads air a full year or more before voting begins.

Once political activity is defined and separated from social welfare activity, 501(c)(4)’s  will no longer be able to claim, as Karl Rove and others have, that “issue ads” mentioning candidates are for social welfare purposes. (These are the kinds of ads that say, “Dog-kicking is terrible. Call Senator Jones and tell her to stop doing it.”)

But a definition alone won’t do any good unless the I.R.S. tells these groups how much political activity is permitted. The ideal answer would be: zero. Social welfare groups have no business meddling in politics. Any group with a political interest has its own place in the tax code — they can be a 527 political organization. Those groups, which include political parties and official campaign organizations, also get tax exemptions, but there is one crucial difference: they have to disclose their donors, and 501(c)(4)’s don’t.

Conservatives immediately claimed that the I.R.S. was trying to take away their free-speech rights, which is laughable. Absolutely nothing is stopping advocacy from running ads, and the Supreme Court, in the Citizens United case, even granted corporations the right to make unlimited donations to independent groups that produce political ads. But there is no right to keep these donations a secret.

The Treasury announcement, tantalizingly, said the I.R.S. would consider comments from the public on how much political activity should be permitted for a social welfare group, suggesting that decision was farther down the road. It’s in the agency’s interest to end the confusion surrounding 501(c)(4)’s, which has led to charges that it has been arbitrary in its audits. But it’s in the public interest to do even more, and disallow sleazy secret money in campaigns.

 

By: David Firestone, Editors Blog, The New York Times, November 27, 2013

December 1, 2013 Posted by | Campaign Financing, Politics | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Replace The Sequester, Not Sebelius”: While She Tries To Fix A Broken Website, Congress Allows Rest Of Government To Crash

An embarrassing mistake, which should be considered a scandal, has caused the Internal Revenue Service to perform far fewer tax reviews and cut back its fraud investigations, costing the Treasury billions of dollars. Have there been any angry House hearings? No.

That same mistake has forced the National Institutes of Health to cut more than 700 advanced research grants, delaying the progress of vaccines and experimental treatments. No hearings.

And it has cost the economy hundreds of thousands of jobs, according to the Congressional Budget Office, but there is no sign that Republicans want to investigate what went wrong.

That’s because the mistake is called the sequester, and Republicans know what went wrong: they caused it by threatening default in 2011 and then refusing any budget agreement that included new taxes the next year. They’d much rather investigate a serious bumble by the Obama administration in rolling out the health-care website — which will eventually be fixed — than examine the effects of their own actions.

The paradox of Republican complaints about the website’s failings has been widely noted: They are pretending to care about the technical problems of a law they want abolished. But in fact the hypocrisy goes much deeper than that. In virtually every department of government, the right wing has used the sequester to encourage government to stumble, creating backups and denials of service that will be far more damaging than the ones going on at www.healthcare.gov. The sequester, which has been the Tea Party wing’s sole legislative victory, is evidence that its members want government to do less with less, and that they aren’t interested in having it work efficiently in delivering services to the public.

Any lawmaker who came to Washington to improve government, rather than shrink it, would do everything possible to reverse the sequester, as Democrats will try to do in a budget conference beginning this week. (They will be joined in that effort by a few Republicans who want only to turn back the cuts to the Defense Department.) But most Republicans, ranging from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to the furthest extreme in the House, have said they have no intention of letting the budget caps expire, and certainly aren’t interested in replacing them with higher revenue.

The only thing they have clamored to replace is Kathleen Sebelius, the Health and Human Services secretary. While she tries to fix a broken website, Congress is allowing the rest of government to slowly crash.

By: David Firestone, Editors Blog, The New York Times, October 28, 2013

October 29, 2013 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Sequester | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Priority Deficit Disorder”: When Congressional Republicans’ Homework And Playtime Are At Odds

Back in March, just two months into the new Congress, Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) conceded that he had a small problem. He’d been assigned the task of working on loan guarantees for clean-energy companies, and was supposed to write legislation. But that never happened — Kelly got distracted.

His spokesperson said at the time, “It was a priority, and it remains an issue of interest. But Mike’s efforts shifted when he chose to focus more on holding the administration accountable with regards to Fast and Furious. And then when the Benghazi tragedy occurred, that took the cake.”

In other words, there was real work to do, but the Pennsylvania Republican couldn’t get to it because he decided made-up political “scandals” were a better use of his time.

Six months later, those attitudes continue to dominate the House GOP’s thinking.

Republicans on Capitol Hill are acknowledging that the fall’s looming fiscal fights could peel attention away from their investigation into the IRS’s singling out of conservative groups. […]

But Republicans have also made the IRS investigation a key part of their recent political message, at a time when the agency is trying to implement the Democratic healthcare law that conservatives are itching to defund. The controversy has also helped revive a Tea Party movement that had been flagging in recent months.

With all that in mind, GOP aides stress that the congressional investigation into the IRS will be moving full speed ahead, even as a potential debt default takes up much of the oxygen in the halls of Congress.

This will, by the way, include even more hearings into the discredited controversy.

John Feehery, a GOP strategist, told The Hill that Republicans “have to make the connection” between the non-existent IRS story and the Affordable Care Act “because it’s so hot right now.”

Oh for crying out loud.

Look, the House of Representatives is in session only nine days this month. Nine. Congress just took a four-week break, but the Republican-led lower chamber apparently wants to ease back into their work schedule.

On the to-do list? A budget crisis, a debt-ceiling crisis, a farm bill, immigration reform, appropriations bills, and fixing the Voting Rights Act. It’s simply unrealistic to think the dysfunctional House will complete all of these tasks, or even most of them, anytime soon, though a couple of these are non-optional.

But despite all of this work that remains undone, much of which should have been completed before the August recess, House GOP leaders are still eager to invest time and energy in a “scandal” that no longer makes any sense. Why? Apparently because it’s “so hot right now.”

It reminds me a lot of a child who prioritizes playtime over homework. Sure, the homework is important, but it’s not nearly as fun or satisfying as playing — so the child decides some of the homework just won’t get done.

Republicans remain a post-policy party. They have real work to do, which they will neglect because their shiny plaything has a firm grip on their limited attention span.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, September 3, 2013

September 4, 2013 Posted by | Republicans | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A New Toy To Play With”: Where Darrell Issa Sees A Potential Political Scandal, Everyone Else Sees Reality

The discredited IRS controversy clearly didn’t work out the way House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) had hoped, to the point that he no longer remembers the serious-but-false allegations he carelessly threw around just a month ago. The far-right Californian now wants to “expand” his investigation, which is a pleasant-sounding euphemism for, “The questions I asked produced answers that didn’t fit my preconceived narrative, so I’ve come up with new ones.”

And this week, after Issa grew tired of his broken old toys, he found something new to play with: officials at the Federal Election Commission apparently asked the IRS’s tax exemption division last year about the status of some conservative political groups. Issa pounced, ordering the FEC to produce “all documents and communications between or among any FEC official or employee and any IRS official or employee for the period January 1, 2008 to the present.”

So what seems to be the trouble? There’s no evidence that the IRS shared private information with the FEC, but Issa and his allies want to know if maybe it happened anyway, and if there’s some convoluted way to connect this to the debunked “scandal” Issa was so invested in.

As Dave Weigel explained, there’s just not much here.

This level of scrutiny, with this much evidence, is a puzzle to some former FEC commissioners. “From what I’ve seen so far this doesn’t look like anything,” said Larry Noble, a Democratic appointee until 2000 who now advocates for public funding of elections. “It looked like what happened was that the staff contacted the IRS and asked for what was public. When I was there, certainly, it was always clear that the IRS would not give out anything that was not public. The IRS has a list of c3 groups, but it’s often out of date, so people check with the source. This looked like a routine inquiry for public information.”

A former Republican FEC commissioner said largely the same thing.

Where Issa sees a potential political scandal, everyone else sees routine and uncontroversial bureaucracy.

Tax Analysts reported this week:

“There are many legitimate or at least innocuous reasons for the FEC and the IRS to be sharing information about politically active nonprofits. The two agencies share regulatory oversight authority,” [James P. Joseph of Arnold & Porter LLP] said.

Ofer Lion of Hunton & Williams LLP said it makes sense for the IRS and FEC to talk to each other when dealing with politically active tax-exempt organizations and applicants. “Most of this probably falls within the FEC’s field of expertise anyway, so it makes sense that they would collaborate,” he said. He added that it would be disastrous if the two agencies went after organizations for political reasons but that he sees no evidence yet that they have done that.

John Pomeranz of Harmon, Curran, Spielberg & Eisenberg LLP said it’s possible an FEC staffer contacted Lerner to find out if a particular group had tax-exempt status, which is public information. If Lerner provided an answer, that would be fine, he said.

“It would be great if everybody went through official channels to get information like that, but I think there are a lot of people who rely on contacts inside the IRS to get a quick answer when it takes too long to get an answer the other way,” Pomeranz said.

Gregory L. Colvin of Adler and Colvin said he is not surprised the IRS and FEC contacted each other regarding the AFF and other organizations that spend money on broadcast advertising featuring candidates for federal office. He said that for years the two agencies have been criticized for not coordinating their enforcement of tax and election laws, which “overlap in some respects and leave gaps in others.”

In other words, the “scandal” is that some folks at the FEC were looking for official information on a couple of political groups that were flouting tax-exempt rules, and instead of following bureaucratic, inter-agency procedures, they just sent emails to the IRS.

If you care deeply about bureaucratic, inter-agency procedures related to the FEC and the IRS, this might be fascinating, but if Darrell Issa wants the political world to stay awake, he’s going to have to do better than this.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, August 9, 2013

August 10, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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