Looking past the obvious in the IRS scandal

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By Lee Cary –

In the late 1960’s, there was a small, impish Major, with hard experience etched on his face, teaching at the U.S. Army military intelligence school at Ft. Holabird, Maryland. He told his classes, “Gentlemen, things are seldom as they appear. Look past the obvious.”

Who among the Republican leadership – those publicly elected and those chosen to hold senior positions within G.O.P. state and national organizations – knew the Obama IRS was targeting conservative groups – including Tea Party organizations – for harassment? And when did they know it?

The really big things in Washington, D.C. don’t happen without the knowledge of the big boys and girls on both sides of the isle. They may not have all the details, but big secrets are hard to keep. They’re easy to keep from the citizenry, but not from the bipartisan principals. There are too many cocktail parties, too many confidential sources, too many leaks, too many back-channel secrets shared in low-volume hall talk.

When something big is racing toward a train wreck it’s self-defensive to be able to come along later behind the clean-up crew and say, “Well, we thought there was a problem here and we were actively inquiring into it.”

That’s akin to what the G.O.P. said after the wreck in 2007-2008 involving the ugly mortgage twins, Fannie and Freddie – “Several times we warned of the coming problems.” If you watched C-Span as the sub-prime interest train sped down the track, you might have heard some of those warnings made in passing. But you didn’t hear anyone scream alarm with their hair on fire. That would have been undignified behavior, unnecessarily alarmist, and, well, too extreme. “I wish to respectfully disagree with my good friend the senior Senator from the great state of…”

So the G.O.P. warnings about the sub-prime interest rate debacle were voiced just often enough to support a later claim that concerns had been dutifully expressed. The goal: make a “We tried to warn you” statement credible when the train goes off the tracks. CYA chips banked in advance.

The really big train wrecks in Washington, D.C. don’t happen without the knowledge of the big boys and girls on both sides of the isle who know the rails are bent before the smash-up.

The Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) targeting of conservative groups for “H & I” (harassment and interdiction) had to have been known by senior Republicans. For example, here’s a letter written by Montana Democrat U.S. Senator Max Baucus on September 28, 2010 to IRS Commissioner Douglas H. Shulman.

In the letter Baucus wrote:

I request that you and your agency survey major 501(c)(4), (c)(5) and (c)(6) organizations involved in political campaign activity to examine whether they are operated for the organization’s intended tax exempt purpose and to ensure that political campaign activity is not the organization’s primary activity. Specifically you should examine if these political activities reach a primary purpose level – the standard imposed by the federal tax code – and if they do not, whether the organization is complying with the notice or proxy tax requirements of Section 6033(e). I also request that you or your agency survey major 501(c)(4), (c)(5), and (c)(6) organizations to determine whether they are acting as conduits for major donors advancing their own private interests regarding legislation or political campaigns, or are providing major donors with excess benefits.”

The set-up for the request cited articles in TIME magazine and the New York Times about the misuse of tax-exempt status by political organizations. Those “news” outlets weren’t concerned about the Center for American Progress or moveon.org.

Baucus’ letter drew a bull’s eye on conservative groups.

The stationary letterhead of the Senate Finance Committee chaired by Baucus included these Republican Senators at the time: Chuck Grassley, Orrin Hatch, Olympia Snowe, Jon Kyl, Jim Bunning, Mike Crapo, Pat Roberts, John Ensign, Michael Enzi, and John Cornyn. Did they all miss the intent of Baucus’ request to the IRS?

The intrepid blogger Doug Ross has posted this timeline (used with his permission) for the IRS’s attack on conservative groups:

IRS Scandal Timeline

It’s unreasonable to believe that the scope and impact of the IRS’s targeting project went on for thirty-nine months (March 2010 – April 2013) without leading Republicans knowing about it. Yet, they never broke the scandal and Romney lost the election.

What possible motive could G.O.P. leaders have had for not aggressively pursuing the IRS’s activity during those 39 months?

The small, impish Army Major would ask that question this way: “Who else, besides Democrats, stood to gain by suppressing conservative groups, including many affiliated with the Tea Party, through sustained “H & I” fire from the IRS? Look past the obvious, gentlemen.”

The IRS story broke early this month when “Lois Lerner, head of the tax exempt division of the Internal Revenue Service dropped a bombshell: The IRS had been applying extra scrutiny to conservative groups claiming tax exempt status. The revelation came seemingly out of the blue, in response to a question during a panel at an American Bar Association conference, leaving the audience baffled, according to reports.”

Since when does an administration – or any government anywhere – choreograph a reporter’s question in order to divulge a scandal in which that government is the leading bad actor? The answer is only when it’s a self-serving disclosure.

So why would the Obama administration tell on itself?

Since the IRS scandal surfaced, Ben Ghazi has become a Turkish soccer player, and the Associated Press has nearly recovered from its short-term fit of outrage at having its reporters’ phones monitored. Soon, all will be forgiven.

The Republican Party investigated the IRS’s intimidation of conservative groups with a zeal and enthusiasm equivalent to how they blew the whistle on Fannie and Freddie before the collapse.

Just enough to say they were concerned. Not enough to make a difference.