James Baker Advises the Republican Party

I am sure that the following is anathema to those who prefer ideological purity in the Republican party to the actual winning of elections--and to the ability to use election victories in order to claim a mandate to change policy for the better--but I happen to be enough of a heterodox thinker to believe that there is some merit to be found in Baker's advice:

There was, however, one big loser [in the government shutdown debacle]: the American people. This misguided episode cost the federal government $24bn, cost the country a potential drop in gross domestic product, and cost the GOP an opportunity to focus on the extraordinary failure associated with the ACA rollout.

Most Americans blame Republicans for the fiasco. And the fight over reopening the government and raising the debt ceiling revealed fissures within the GOP leadership. Understandably, questions have arisen about the party’s future. Will it split between Tea Partiers and its more mainstream factions? Will a third party rise from the aftermath of this schism? Is the Republican brand so tarnished that it cannot take control of the Senate in 2014 or the White House in 2016?

Having participated in presidential politics since 1976, one thing is clear to me. The party out of power is typically seen as impotent, helpless and hopeless. But just as inevitably, that same party always seems to rebound after serious soul searching.

Moreover, there has always been a wide range of interest groups in the party. For decades, we have had substantial fights between rightwing and more establishment Republicans. This infighting was particularly brutal in 1976, 1980 and 1988, and we went on to win two out of three presidential elections.

The party’s diversity, however, is a strength, not a weakness. Today, Tea Partiers bring a passion that can be an important edge in elections. But mainstream Republicans remain indispensable. It may sound trite, but it is true: united we stand, divided we fall. I think most Republicans understand that.

So what does the GOP need to do now? In the short term, remember that tactics and strategy both matter. It was a fool’s errand to tie the defunding of the ACA to a government shutdown and a debt-ceiling debate. Because Democrats control the White House and the Senate, the strategy was never going to work. To paraphrase Clayton Williams, a Republican who lost the 1990 Texas gubernatorial race after a series of gaffes: we shot ourselves in the foot and reloaded.

That does not mean that Republicans should stop criticising the ACA. It remains an example of big government at its worst: cumbersome, complicated and intrusive. The best – in fact, only – way to repeal the ACA is to control the White House, Senate and the House of Representatives. Democrats, after all, enacted the law when they controlled all three. So the focus should be on winning elections to control those levers of power.

Epic Defeat

So, Congress has voted to raise the debt ceiling and reopen government, which is the good news for anyone who cares about decent and responsible policymaking. The bad news is that in a few months, we may end up repeating the entire fight. I can't wait to see what that does to our credit rating. I also can't wait to see the people who thought that the current shutdown and flirtation with debt ceiling disaster was A Compendium of All the Wonderful Things tell us a couple months down the line that we have to tilt at windmills again because . . . well . . . something.

Of course, it would be nice if congressional Republicans avoided making the same mistake again. Perhaps they could listen to one of their own:

Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), one of the more conservative voices in the House GOP caucus, told CNN on Wednesday afternoon: “We lost. That’s it. You’re absolutely right. The folks who said we were going to lose turned out to be correct. I can’t argue that.”

I pray that Rep. Mulvaney isn't going to get primaried for these comments at some point before the night is over.

The only thing that Republicans got in the deal legislative deal that brought this entire horror show to an end is a commitment to verify the incomes of those seeking subsidies in order to enroll in Obamacare. Of course, income verification was already part of the bill authorizing the Affordable Care Act, so this means that Republicans got absolutely nothing whatsoever of any substance or value from the shutdown. This is what happens when an incredibly weak hand gets ridiculously overplayed.

It is time for some serious self-examination on the right, and to that end, I am glad to give the microphone to Peter Wehner. Read the whole thing that he wrote. Also, read John Podhoretz:

Apologists for [Senator Ted] Cruz and [Senator Mike] Lee say they drew attention to ObamaCare. This is nothing short of demented. ObamaCare has been pretty much the sole subject of Republican domestic- policy politics over the past three years. It didn’t need them to call attention to it.

If anything, as it turns out, they drew attention away from it.

Had they not created the shutdown, the political discussion in the United States these past two weeks would have been entirely dedicated to the disastrous launch of ObamaCare — something so disastrous, in fact, that liberal journalists have been unable to avoid the subject and have instead taken to whining about it.

But no. Instead, we spent the two weeks before the launch watching Ted Cruz rally the Republican faithful with a fantasy scenario in which the public would stage an uprising against ObamaCare and force a bunch of Democratic senators to vote to defund it.

Well, that didn’t happen.

But once the conservative base became convinced the defunding of ObamaCare was a possibility, the Republican House found it impossible not to join in the really futile and stupid gesture. Shutdown ensued.

Well, that’s over with. And maybe the damage will not be very great. But doing really futile and stupid things is never a good idea, and for a political party, it is disastrous.

Such behavior convinces people who are not firmly fixed in your party’s corner that you don’t care about the good working ­order of the United States, that you’re only out to satisfy your own ideological fantasies, and that you’re actually unserious.

Listen: Not enough people are voting for Republicans. That’s why the GOP has lost the popular vote in five out of the last six national elections. What happened over the past two weeks will only harm the effort to convince those who can be convinced to vote Republican that doing so is wise and prudent.

You would think that all of this was obvious to begin with. You would think that an entire column in the New York Post would not have to be devoted to explaining the obvious to very smart politicians.

You would think wrong.

Our Ongoing Governmental Disaster

This Ross Douthat piece is very good indeed on describing why the Republican shutdown plan was so crazy to begin with, and why indeed no method to Republican plans can be found. I would excerpt favorite parts, but really, one ought to read the whole thing.

While I am citing Douthat, here is another piece of his from which I will excerpt:

. . . I suppose one possible alternative would be for Republicans to step outside the murder-suicide context of shutdowns and debt ceiling brinksmanship, set aside the fantasy of winning major policy victories in divided government, cut a few small deals if possible and otherwise just oppose the president’s agenda on issues like immigration and climate change, and try to win the next two elections on the merits. This is how American political parties normally seek to enact their preferred policies, and the fact that the Republicans and Democrats are currently further apart ideologically than our political parties have traditionally been only strengthens the case for this old-fashioned way of doing things. Want to repeal/replace Obamacare, reform entitlements, do tax reform without tax increases? Go win a presidential election.

Well said. But of course, these days, to suggest that Republicans ought to moderate political positions in order to be able to win an election or two is to be a RiNO, utterly devoid of principles.

I do not want to make too much of the claim that the GOP's political position has become untenable. There are limits to that theory, which Nate Silver discusses in a very informative piece (isn't it interesting that Silver suddenly has fans on the right? A year ago, Silver was under attack from the right for having had the temerity to suggest that Barack Obama would win the presidential election). But as I have (plaintively) mentioned before, wouldn't it have been great if the GOP had avoided shooting itself in both feet, and instead, we had the opportunity to focus on just how incredibly embarrassed the Obama administration and just about every supporter of Obamacare must feel regarding the utterly disastrous rollout of the new health care program? Wouldn't it be better for Republican politicians if they could make fun of the Obama administration's admission that we should expect "months" of glitches with the Obamacare registration program?  Wouldn't it be better for Republican politicians to be able to focus on the fact that Obamacare is already giving consumers bad economic choices, or the fact that a former member of the Obama administration is criticizing the president's handling of the shutdown, or the fact that people like Megan McArdle are now pushing for Obamacare to have a drop-dead date for implementation?

Well yes, all of this would be better. But instead, what we have is a war between the establishment and the Tea Party (and yes, because of the way in which the Tea Party botched strategy and tactics for Republicans, I most certainly do have sympathy for the establishment in this fight, and note that the establishment is not made up of Gerald Ford Republicans, but people like former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, who is no one's idea of a moderate or RiNO). Instead, what we have are concerns that the default has already begun, and while I don't think that any evaporated faith in the United States government "will never return," I certainly think that in the short term, this entire dumb fight has caused a lot of damage to the United States government. At the end of the day, Republicans are going to have to give a lot of ground in negotiations in order to allows the government to re-open and in order to prevent any kind of default, and the tragedy is that the upcoming Republican capitulation would never have been necessary if Republicans did not try to demand things from this fight that they were never going to get in the first place.

I have said before that the Republican stance in forcing the government shutdown, in flirting with a debt ceiling default, and in demanding concessions that they never had any realistic chance of getting was political malpractice of the first order, given the way in which Republican bumbles and stumbles took attention off of the failed Obamacare rollout. I see no reason to back away from that statement.

Republicans and the Right Continue to Bumble and Stumble

Don't look now, but there finally appears to be some work getting done in order to reopen the government and get some kind of deal achieved on increasing the debt ceiling through meetings between the White House and congressional Republicans. But Republicans are hardly negotiating from a position of strength. Note that the story points out that "the White House and its Democratic allies in Congress were all but declaring victory at the evidence that Republicans — suffering the most in polls, and pressured by business allies and donors not to provoke a government default — were seeking a way out of the impasse." That part about "suffering in the polls" is no joke, by the way:

The Republican Party has been badly damaged in the ongoing government shutdown and debt limit standoff, with a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finding that a majority of Americans blame the GOP for the shutdown, and with the party’s popularity declining to its lowest level.

By a 22-point margin (53 percent to 31 percent), the public blames the Republican Party more for the shutdown than President Barack Obama – a wider margin of blame for the GOP than the party received during the poll during the last shutdown in 1995-96.

Just 24 percent of respondents have a favorable opinion about the GOP, and only 21 percent have a favorable view of the Tea Party, which are both at all-time lows in the history of poll.

I would like to use this blog post in order to thank the shutdown caucus for bringing about this unmitigated political/public relations disaster for the Republican party, and for the right in general. No Democrat or liberal, actively working to undermine the starboard side of American politics, could possibly have done a better job than the suicide squards of the right did with the GOP's reputation.

The good news for Republicans is that they have over a year until the 2014 elections. The bad news is that the Republicans have over a year to think to themselves "gee, how else can we make ourselves less popular than the bubonic plague," come up with answers, and then merrily set about implementing them--to the shock and delight of Democrats everywhere. I for one have no doubt that Republicans will rise to the occasion.

To the extent that congressional Republicans are able to get themselves out of the political jam they have created for themselves, it may be because of the efforts of Paul Ryan, who doubtless will be considered a RiNO and an apostate in short order for actually trying to be responsible instead of doing something crazy like urging default on the debt, or working to get the GOP's approval ratings in the single digits.

Of course, if congressional Republicans wanted a blueprint on how to act halfway intelligent, they might have listened to Megan McArdle. The following excerpt revolves around a point I have tried to make myself:

The shutdown is eclipsing the horrifyingly inept rollout of the federal exchanges. Republicans should be basking in schadenfreude while a grief-stricken administration watches its poll numbers plunge. Instead, Obama and his deputies are getting front-page stories every day where they get to claim to be the grown-ups in the room. Again, I don’t care whether this is because the mainstream media is biased, unless you have a negotiation scenario where the MSM disappears at the stroke of midnight and is replaced by the staff of the National Review and the Daily Caller.

To amplify McArdle's point, the GOP could have spent time chortling over the fact that only five people in Iowa have signed up for Obamacare. No, that's not a typo; only five people in the entire state of Iowa have signed up for Obamacare. But, you know, God forbid that congressional Republicans should listen to reason, get themselves out of the line of fire, and let the storyline focus on all of the problems with the Obamacare rollout.

This is political malpractice at its worst. And it has been brought about by "thought leaders" on the right who wouldn't know a good thought if it confronted them and slapped them in the face. Whether activists on the right--both in and out of Congress--actually genuinely believed that it would be a good idea to shut the government down and play chicken with the debt ceiling over unrealistic negotiating demands, or whether those activists knew that this would be a disaster, but felt that it would profit them to curry favor with the Tea Party, there needs to be a serious examination on the right regarding the kind of leadership it has been saddled with. Specifically, anyone who argued that the shutdown strategy and threats of not raising the debt ceiling were good ideas needs to be ousted from any position of leadership on the right. It is high time for the grownups to take charge. As things stand right now, the GOP's/right's brain trust is short on brains, and shouldn't be afforded any trust whatsoever.

Introducing the IRS's New Slogan

"Better Late than Never!"

One of the groups at the center of the IRS scandal has finally received its tax-exempt status after a three-year delay prompted by a politically driven move to block Tea Party and other conservative groups, many that slammed the president during his re-election, from winning the special status.

TheTeaParty.net, one of the nation's largest Tea Party groups, told Secrets that the long-sought declaration arrived Monday, well over three years after they applied for 501c(4) tax-exempt status in March of 2010, the start of the Tea Party movement. The notice came in a letter from the IRS.

The group said it endured harassment by agents targeting mostly conservative non-profit groups for their political donors, agenda and even reading lists, all against the rules. Those agents were headed by the recently retired Lois Lerner.

"After four years battling Lois Lerner's shock troops, we are relieved that the IRS has relented and finally recognized our right to operate as a non-profit,” said Todd Cefaratti, founder of TheTeaParty.net. “First they tried to ignore us. Then they tried to discredit us. And then they tried to deny our legal rights. Hopefully this is the beginning of the end to a sad chapter in our government’s targeting of its own citizens," he added.

I am sure that the IRS expects praise and congratulations for the mercy and kindness it believes it has shown in this case.

The Falsehoods Surrounding the IRS Scandal

Tired of being told that the IRS scandal is a "fake" one? So is Bradley Smith, who takes apart false claims surrounding the issue:

The Internal Revenue Service's scandalous targeting of tea party and conservative groups refuses to die, as one by one the administration's explanations prove untrue.

We were told that the White House, like the rest of the country, learned about the program on May 10 through a planted question asked of then IRS official Lois Lerner at an American Bar Association conference. Turns out the White House knew earlier. We were told the targeting was the work of a few rogue IRS employees in Cincinnati. Then those employees insisted that they were being managed from Washington.

We were told that no political appointees were involved, but now we know the scandal goes at least to the office of Obama appointee and IRS Chief Counsel William Wilkins. We were told that liberal groups were targeted, too. But then the IRS's inspector general, whose report exposed the harassment, clarified that only conservative groups were targeted.

Now the administration line is that the scandal is nonetheless "phony." That assertion is part of a Democratic counteroffensive contending that the tea party and conservative groups applying for "charitable" tax status never should have sought such IRS approval.

Rep. Xavier Becerra (D., Calif.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, argued on "Meet the Press" on May 19 that conservative groups were, "under the guise of a charity, [using] undisclosed millions of dollars to do political campaigns." At a May hearing, Sen. Bill Nelson (D., Fla.) claimed that the groups were supposed to spend their money on "charitable activities," and demanded of the IRS, "How could you all in the IRS allow the tax breaks funded basically by the taxpayer [to be spent] on these political campaign expenditures?"

Liberal columnist Jeffrey Toobin has also taken up the theme that the groups were seeking improper tax advantages. Writing in the May 14 issue of the New Yorker, Mr. Toobin argued that if approved by the IRS, the tea party groups would not pay taxes on contributions received. "In return for the tax advantage," he wrote, these groups "must refrain from traditional partisan political activity, like endorsing candidates."

This attack is wrong on the law, and cynical as politics. As these IRS apologists well know, liberal groups, such as Moveon.org, have long had the same tax status as that requested by the tea party and conservative groups—and that status is not of a "charity."

“No Obamacare, Please. We Are the Head of the IRS.”

Daniel Werfel would much rather keep his current health care plan than switch to Obamacare, thank you very much. I guess this means that when it comes to targeting conservative groups for extra scrutiny after they apply for 501(c)(4) status, Werfel can put in overtime hours with reckless abandon.

Your Government at Work (IRS Edition)

So, despite an order to save money because of the sequester, and despite an IRS scandal that should by itself make any talk of bonuses for IRS employees verbotenthe IRS is going to pay out $70 million extra to its workers for a job not-so-well-done.

Gee, imagine how much IRS workers would get if they were actually good at their jobs. 

IRS Follies: More on the Supposed Non-Scandal That Actually Is a Scandal

Another blow to the theory that "rogue agents" in a local IRS office were responsible for targeting conservative groups for extra scrutiny: 

An Internal Revenue Service supervisor in Washington says she was personally involved in scrutinizing some of the earliest applications from tea party groups seeking tax-exempt status, including some requests that languished for more than a year without action.

Holly Paz
, who until recently was a top deputy in the division that handles applications for tax-exempt status, told congressional investigators she reviewed 20 to 30 applications. Her assertion contradicts initial claims by the agency that a small group of agents working in an office in Cincinnati were solely responsible for mishandling the applications.

Ron Fournier points out that second-term Obama administration scandals are biting into the president's approval ratings:

There is a common element to the so-called Obama scandals—the IRS targeting of conservatives, the fatal attack in Benghazi, and widespread spying on U.S. journalists and ordinary Americans. It is a lack of credibility.

In each case, the Obama administration has helped make controversies worse by changing its stories, distorting facts, and lying.

The abuse of trust may be taking a toll on President Obama's reputation.

CNN/ORC poll of 1,104 adult Americans June 11-13 shows the president's job approval rating at 45 percent, down 8 percentage points in a month.

Among young voters, only 48 percent approve of the president's performance, a 17-point decline since the last CNN/ORC poll. These are the president's most loyal supporters, and the future of American politics.

The drop in presidential approval is across the board, affecting Obama's standing on every issue measured: The economy (down 2 points); foreign affairs (down 5 points); federal budget (down 4 points); terrorism (down 13 points); and immigration (down 4 points).

Asked for the first time by CNN/ORC about the president's handling of "government surveillance of U.S. citizens," 61 percent of Americans said they disapprove.

Pants on Fire (Jim McDermott Edition)

Politifact is not exactly known for being a propaganda organ for the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy, but even it is forced to call shenanigans on Congressman Jim McDermott:

At a House Ways and Means committee hearing Tuesday, Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., listened closely to the stories from members of groups that were snagged when the IRS cast a wide net for politically active organizations seeking tax-exempt status. All of the groups advocate for conservative causes, from opposing gay marriage to promoting a broad tea party agenda.

While McDermott said he was sorry they had been singled out, and that "the IRS has unequivocally made a mistake here," he was more focused on the lack of clear legal rules that should guide the IRS.

"Let’s not get lost," McDermott said. "During the Bush administration liberal groups were targeted without any concern by Mr. Issa or anyone else in this committee." (Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., is chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.)

This caught our eye. Were liberal groups targeted when a Republican held the White House? And if so, were the circumstances back then similar to what has come to light today?

[. . .]

McDermott said liberal groups were targeted during the Bush administration. While some liberal groups were audited, the numbers we could find were small, largely confined to 501(c)(3) nonprofits where the rules are more strict, and stemmed from complaints levied by outsiders.

In contrast, the current case was fueled by internal bureaucratic rules applied to a significantly larger number of organizations. A group’s name or its policy agenda triggered the IRS action, rather than a complaint or the group’s specific activities. While there is an element of truth in McDermott’s statement, the systematic nature of the IRS actions between 2010 and 2012 represents a distinctly different set of circumstances.

We rate the statement Mostly False.

Dare we hope that the rest of the media will pick up this pushback and force McDermott to retract? I mean, holding politicians accountable for their misstatements and fibs is a big part of the media's job. Isn't it?

Lame Excuses for the IRS Scandal Get Lamer and Bite More Dust

Recall that from the outset, after it was revealed that the IRS was targeting conservatives and conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status, IRS-apologists came out with the claim that the unwarranted scrutiny was the result of staffers in Ohio offices who went rogue.  As such, according to the apologists, we were not supposed to think that the agency as a whole was rotten to the core; just that there were a few isolated bad apples who in no way, shape, or form were representative of the IRS as a whole.

That theory never held much water to begin with. It holds even less water now

An IRS staffer in Cincinnati told congressional investigators that a Washington official was the driving force behind the targeting of Tea Party organizations in 2010, and showed unprecedented interest in those groups’ tax-exempt applications.

Elizabeth Hofacre, the Cincinnati staffer, said that she started receiving applications from Tea Party groups to sift through in April, 2010. Hofacre’s handling of those cases, she said, was highly influenced by Carter Hull, an IRS lawyer in Washington.

Hofacre said that she integrated questions from Hull into her follow-ups with Tea Party groups, and that Hull had to approve the letters seeking more information that she sent out to those organizations. That process, she said, was both unusual and “demeaning.”

“One of the criteria is to work independently and do research and make decisions based on your experience and education,” Hofacre said, according to transcripts reviewed by The Hill. “Whereas in this case, I had no autonomy at all through the process.”

“I thought it was over the top,” she added, in interviews held by investigators in both parties from the House Oversight and Ways and Means committees. “I am not sure where it came from, but it was a bit unusual.”

Hofacre, who oversaw Tea Party applications from April, 2010, to October, 2010, said Hull eventually became slow to endorse her letters. She eventually took another position within the IRS that year, after dealing with what she called “irate” applicants.

“And I see their point,” Hofacre said. “Even if a decision isn’t favorable, they deserve some kind of treatment and they deserve, you know, timeliness.”

The story goes on to state the following entirely unremarkable conclusion:

[t]he investigators’ interviews with Hofacre and another Cincinnati staffer, Gary Muthert, cast some doubt on statements from the former acting IRS commissioner, Steven Miller, and other agency officials that the targeting of Tea Party groups was limited to Cincinnati.

 

Accountability Has Become Such an Antiquated Concept

Gene Healy  on the president who is never there:

"Hey, don't look at me -- I'm just the president!" That's the common thread in President Obama's response to his recent scandal eruptions, from IRS harassment of Tea Partiers to his Justice Department's spying on AP reporters. Like everybody else, Obama learns about these things via cable news, according to press secretary Jay Carney.

Obama's flight from responsibility punctured the stratosphere in his recent speech on "the Future of Our Fight against Terrorism" at the National Defense University in D.C. In the speech Obama seemed to position himself as the loyal opposition to his own administration.

He worried that "perpetual war ... will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways." Look at the current situation at Guantanamo Bay, Citizen Obama chided, "where we are force-feeding detainees who are being held on a hunger strike ... Is this who we are? Is that something our founders foresaw?" Obama pronounced himself "troubled" by the proliferation of drone strikes in an ever-expanding war and "the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable."

All valid concerns, compassionately expressed. So how can we get this guy into the room when the big decisions are being made?

Mitt Romney may have had his faults as a candidate. No, check that; Mitt Romney most certainly had his faults as a candidate. But I have a hard time believing that he would have been as disengaged a president as the guy we actually re-elected in November of last year has turned out to be.

 

Scandal Watch (More IRS Follies)

Sigh . . .

  • The IRS has problems with you if you are a conservative group that wants to apply for tax-exempt 501(c)(4) status. By contrast, the IRS has no problems whatsoever with itself when it wants to spend money like it is going out of style.
  • 88 IRS employees have documents related to the investigation of the IRS's targeting of conservative groups. Remember that this story is allegedly only a "so-called scandal," and remember as well--as the CNN story points out--that the initial explanation given for the targeting of conservative groups is that a select few "low-level employees" in one local office decided to go rogue.
  • Does this read like just a "so-called scandal" to you?
A group of anti-abortion activists in Iowa had to promise the Internal Revenue Service it wouldn’t picket in front of Planned Parenthood.

Catherine Engelbrecht’s family and business in Texas were audited by the government after her voting-rights group sought tax-exempt status from the IRS.

Retired military veteran Mark Drabik of Nebraska became active in and donated to conservative causes, then found the IRS challenging his church donations.

While the developing scandal over the targeting of conservatives by the tax agency has largely focused to date on its scrutiny of groups with words such as “tea party” or “patriot” in their names, these examples suggest the government was looking at a broader array of conservative groups and perhaps individuals. Their collective experiences at a minimum could spread skepticism about the fairness of a powerful agency that should be above reproach and at worst could point to a secret political vendetta within the government against conservatives.

The emerging stories from real people raise questions about whether the IRS scrutiny extended beyond applicants for tax-exempt status and whether individuals who donated to these tax-exempt organizations or to conservative causes also were targeted.

Scandal Watch (The Saga that Won't End)

The latest:

  • The IRS targeting of conservative groups is only a "so-called scandal" in the eyes of some, who coincidentally, probably don't like conservatives all that much. Equally coincidental, I am sure, those calling the IRS scandal a "so-called scandal" are members of the media, which we are repeatedly assured is never ideologically biased and treats both sides of the partisan divide fairly and honorably.
  • Rich Lowry points out that the IRS scandal--which really is much more than a "so-called scandal"--"is a scandal of administrators and bureaucrats, of otherwise faceless people endowed with immense power over their fellow citizens and running free of serious oversight from elected officials." Which makes you feel good about all of the legislation passed that puts more power in these people's hands, right?
  • Eric Holder is in trouble, as he is facing possible perjury allegations regarding his comments on the Justice Department's investigation of Fox News reporter James Rosen. He has responded to the allegations by inviting media outlets to a discussion with him on how the issue could have been better handled, and what can be done in the future to conduct leak investigations without shredding the First Amendment. Here's the catch: the discussion with the media outlets was supposed to be off the record. So presumably, Holder would discuss better ways to conduct leak investigations and media outlets could not tell the public--the same public that may actually be concerned about the shredding of the First Amendment--anything about his comments. To their credit, a host of media outlets refused to meet with Holder under these conditions. Oh, and the attorney general is “also beginning to feel a creeping sense of personal remorse” over how the leak investigation was handled, which is nice to know. Too bad he refuses to let the public find out how his "creeping sense of personal remorse" will translate into a change in policy at the Justice Department.

Scandal Watch (A Continuing Series)

So, let's review the latest:

  • Concerning the IRS scandal, we learn that Lois Lerner was "directly involved" in the targeting of conservative groups. This included signing letters that contained "a list of detailed questions of the kind that a Treasury inspector general’s audit found to be inappropriate."
  • Organizing for Action is a 501(c)(4), which means that it is supposed to act in a non-partisan capacity when engaging in advocacy. So naturally, the president of the United States--who is anything but non-partisan--has signed a fundraising letter on behalf of Organizing for Action, which includes a request to register at this site, which as you will note, contains the name of the non-non-partisan president of the United States in its URL. As of two weeks ago, Organizing for Action has not yet applied for tax-exempt status from the IRS, but I am willing to bet dollars to donuts that when they do, they will encounter no problems whatsoever with their application. To be sure, the IRS won't want to cause yet another scandal by giving yet another prominent 501(c)(4) applicant a hard time, but the point is that plenty of equivalent conservative groups have had to encounter a hard time at the hands of the IRS, while liberal groups have gotten nothing but the kindest cooperation.
  • I am pleased to note that Jonathan Turley has decided to continue to eat his Wheaties:
Recently, Attorney General Eric Holder appeared before the House Judiciary Committee to answer questions about the administration's sweeping surveillance of journalists with the Associated Press. In the greatest attack on the free press in decades, the Justice Department seized phone records for reporters and editors in at least three AP offices as well as its office in the House of Representatives. Holder, however, proceeded to claim absolute and blissful ignorance of the investigation, even failing to recall when or how he recused himself.Yet, this was only the latest attack on the news media under Holder's leadership. Despite his record, he expressed surprise at the hearing that the head of the Republican National Committee had called for his resignation. After all, Holder pointed out, he did nothing. That is, of course, precisely the point. Unlike the head of the RNC, I am neither a Republican nor conservative, and I believe Holder should be fired.

Like dumber follows dumb, the scandal of politicized IRS tax enforcement has been followed by calls for a "special prosecutor." Republicans are predictably leading this call against a Democratic Administration, but this is one case in which the GOP should hope it doesn't get its way.

The case for a special counsel is that Attorney General Eric Holder can't be trusted to investigate his Administration, and that the Administration will stonewall Congress. We don't trust Mr. Holder either, but letting him pass the buck to a special prosecutor is doing him a favor. This scandal is best handled in Congressional hearings that educate the public in the next year rather than wait two or three years for potential indictments.

In Dan Brown’s new novel, Inferno, the lead character is struck with amnesia, unable to remember critical events even as he’s trying to save the world. Let’s borrow that useful plot device and imagine if American journalists woke up and couldn’t remember who was president. It would be interesting to ask them a few questions:

What would you think of a president under whom the IRS targeted his harshest political opponents, during his reelection campaign?

What would you think of a president whose obsession with leaks and secrecy was so great that he used the Justice Department to obtain phone records of reporters, in violation of Justice’s established procedure?

What would you think of a president whose head of the Department of Justice signed a criminal warrant against a leading journalist working for the news organization most critical of the president—and monitored the movements of the journalist and even went after his mother’s phone records?

What would you think of an administration that directed the president’s press secretary repeatedly to deliver false information concerning the death of an American ambassador?

These are not hypothetical questions—and yet there is an entire class of journalist so invested in a certain moral and ethical image of the president its members are unable to entertain facts that might tarnish that image. They are the pro-Obama equivalent of Birthers, never letting emerging facts cloud the conclusion they’ve already committed to hold.

The same journalists who did not hesitate to assume the worst of previous Republican administrations—
E.J. Dionne, Walter Pincus, Jack Shafer, to name a few—are now tying themselves in knots trying to explain that there is nothing to see when the IRS probes Obama’s enemies or that the Justice Department secretly seizing the phone records of one of their peers and his mother was really a good thing. One has to wonder if it were their mother and her records, how that mother-son conversation would play out.

“Well, Mom, you know, the president has to do these things, and I’ve told you time and again not to email Aunt Sally about my sources. Is that any way to keep hope alive?”

Stevens was Mitt Romney's chief strategist in the 2012 presidential election. If he strategized as tough as he wrote this column, we might now have a new president.

The IRS Scandal Continues to Unfold

If "senior White House officials were focused on shielding" the president, then that necessarily means that they were not focused on serving the American people by getting to the bottom of this scandal. Right?

As soon as White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler heard about an upcoming inspector general’s report on the Internal Revenue Service, she knew she had a problem.

The notice Ruemmler saw on April 24 gave her a thumbnail sketch of a disturbing finding: that the IRS had improperly targeted tea party and other conservative groups. She 
shared the news with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and other senior White House aides, who all recognized the danger of the findings.

But they agreed that it would be best not to share it with President Obama until the independent audit was completed and made public, in part to protect him from even the appearance of trying to influence an investigation.

This account of how the White House tried to deal with the IRS inquiry — based on documents, public statements and interviews with multiple senior officials, including one directly involved in the discussions — shows how carefully Obama’s top aides were trying to shield him from any 
second-term scandal that might swamp his agenda or, worse, jeopardize his presidency.

The episode also offers a glimpse into the workings of Obama’s insular West Wing, which has struggled to cope in recent weeks with the IRS scandal, the continued fallout from last year’s deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya, and the Justice Department’s tracking of journalists as part of leak investigations.

But Ruemmler and McDonough’s careful plan for the IRS was upended on May 10, when Lois Lerner, a senior official at the agency, broke the news by admitting that the IRS had given extra scrutiny to conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.

Senior White House officials were stunned to see the IRS trying to get ahead of its own story — and in doing so, creating a monstrous communications disaster for an administration that appeared not to know what its agencies were up to.

I'll refer back to Stephen Bainbridge on the issue of whether the president can be made aware of what is going on in his government without seeming to influence an investigation (short version: yes, he can--to coin a phrase). More from the good Professor Bainbridge here. Meanwhile, it is nice to see that the members of the Wall Street Journal's editorial board have eaten their Wheaties:

Every day brings new revelations about who knew what about the IRS targeting conservative groups during President Obama's re-election campaign, but the overall impression is of a vast federal bureaucracy run amok. While the White House continues to peddle the story of a driverless train wreck, taxpayers are being treated to a demonstration of the dangers of an unwieldy and unaccountable administrative state. Look, Ma, no hands!

In his press events, Mr. Obama has said that while he learned about the Cincinnati rogues on the news, he plans to "hold accountable those who have taken these outrageous actions." But the White House began its response by pushing the line that the IRS is an "independent agency," and Mr. Obama has since given the impression that he sits atop a federal government which he does not, and could not possibly, control.

White House senior adviser Dan Pfieffer encouraged that fable on this Sunday's news shows, implying that the Treasury's internal process for handling the unfair treatment of political targets trumped the President's right to know. When CNN political correspondent Candy Crowley asked Mr. Pfieffer why the White House and top Treasury officials weren't notified, he explained that Treasury's investigation was ongoing and "Here's the cardinal rule: You do not interfere in an independent investigation."

Now there's a false choice. The Treasury Inspector General's report, for starters, was an audit, not an inviolable independent investigation. He lacked subpoena power and could bring no criminal charges. Having the President know of the IRS's mistakes so that he could act to correct the problem was not a bridge too far or even clouding the purity of the process. Those things could have been done simultaneously without compromising Treasury's investigation.

Some adult supervision at the White House would be very useful right now. Too bad we don't seem to have it.

Good Question

As Stephen Bainbridge notes, any general counsel of a publicly held corporation would tell the CEO of that corporation about the presence and activities of misbehaving employees.

So why on Earth weren't Barack Obama and/or Treasury Secretary Jack Lew informed earlier about misconduct at the IRS? It's one thing to want to make sure that there isn't interference in the process from inappropriate quarters. But it is quite another to be left completely ignorant. Quoth Bainbridge:

. . . First, telling the POTUS about an investigation governmental misconduct in now way suggests that the President interfered with said investigation. Second, the President is not the only one who can interfere with an investigation. To the contrary, if you buy the logic of the "administration officials," it appears that they interfered with the process.

If Ken Lay had told Congress that his Enron subordinates had kept him out of the loop so that it wouldn't appear as though he had interfered with an investigation of the fraud, the Congressmen who adopted Sarbanes-Oxley--an act Obama has often praised--would have howled in derision. And rightly so. Obama should be held to no less a standard.

In short, the guy at whose desk the buck stops should not want to be kept out of the loop.

The number of questions that need to get answered just keeps increasing, now doesn't it?

Metastasis of the IRS Scandal

When Lois Lerner goes before the House to testify regarding the IRS's targeting of conservative groups, she is not going to offer much actual testimony at all:

A top IRS official in the division that reviews nonprofit groups will invoke the 5th Amendment and refuse to answer questions before a House committee investigating the agency’s improper screening of conservative nonprofit groups. 

Lois Lerner, the head of the exempt organizations division of the IRS, won’t answer questions about what she knew about the improper screening — or why she didn’t disclose it to 
Congress, according to a letter from her defense lawyer, William W. Taylor III. Lerner was scheduled to appear before the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday.

“She has not committed any crime or made any misrepresentation but under the circumstances she has no choice but to take this course,” said a letter by Taylor to committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Vista). The letter, sent Monday, was obtained Tuesday by the Los Angeles Times.

It would be wrong to conclude from Lerner's decision to plead the Fifth alone that she has committed any crime. She has the right to remain silent and negative inferences cannot be drawn from that right. Still, as anyone with a brain will tell you, it doesn't look good politically that Lerner is taking the Fifth.

It also doesn't look good that a Houston-based non-profit dedicated to fighting voter fraud has had its application for tax-exempt status on hold for the past three years. You know, just saying.

And while we're talking about this, it also doesn't look good that the IRS was aware of the facts underlying this scandal back in 2012. I trust that there is no longer any real argument over whether this story qualifies as a scandal, though I am sure that there are some outlying pundits who continue to try to deny the reality of the situation.