Silencing the Truth at the IRS

Here are 4 steps Republicans and Democrats could take to restore the public’s trust, and why they probably won’t.

WEST PALM BEACH, FL - MAY 21: Christina King (L) and Lynne Sherrer (C) hold signs during aTea Party Internal Revenue Service (IRS) demonstration on May 21, 2013 in West Palm Beach, Florida. Tea Party activists organized the protest against the Internal Revenue Service saying they improperly targeted conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. 
National Journal
Ron Fournier
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Ron Fournier
March 6, 2014, 5:13 a.m.

Rude and bul­ly­ing, Rep. Dar­rell Issa si­lenced the mi­cro­phone of Rep. Eli­jah Cum­mings dur­ing a con­gres­sion­al hear­ing in­to the IRS’ tar­get­ing of tea party groups. “Mr. Chair­man,” the Demo­crat fumed as Re­pub­lic­an Issa walked away, “what are you hid­ing?”

Issa didn’t an­swer. “He’s tak­ing the Fifth, Eli­jah,” Demo­crat­ic Rep. Ger­ald Con­nolly joked, a ref­er­ence to the com­mit­tee’s re­luct­ant wit­ness, former IRS of­fi­cial Lois Lern­er, who re­fused again to ex­plain the agency’s ac­tions, cit­ing her con­sti­tu­tion­al right not to self-in­crim­in­ate. Par­tis­ans re­joice!

  • Con­ser­vat­ives are ap­plaud­ing Issa for shut­ting down a Demo­crat. Without evid­ence, the Right has con­victed Lern­er, the IRS, the White House, and Pres­id­ent Obama of ab­use of power.
  • Lib­er­als are ap­plaud­ing Cum­mings for stand­ing up to Issa. Without evid­ence, the Left ex­on­er­ated every­body. The fact that lib­er­al non­profits also were tar­geted is rel­ev­ant, but not con­clus­ive.

To the rest of the coun­try, the “in­vest­ig­a­tions” of the IRS — self-serving in­quir­ies con­duc­ted sep­ar­ately by the GOP House and the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion — are par­tis­an jokes. We still don’t know the facts. We still have no reas­on to trust the Re­pub­lic­an Party, the Demo­crat­ic Party, the IRS, Con­gress, or the White House.

Rather than a polit­ic­al cir­cus like the one dis­guising it­self as a House Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form hear­ing Wed­nes­day, a cred­ible Con­gress would jointly agree to:

1. Grant im­munity to Lern­er for her sworn testi­mony about the IRS’s tar­get­ing of polit­ic­al groups. What was done, why, and un­der whose or­ders?

2. De­mand from the ad­min­is­tra­tion every IRS and White House doc­u­ment per­tain­ing to the IRS tea-party probes, in­clud­ing emails, text mes­sages, meet­ing notes, and di­ar­ies. If the White House has leg­al grounds to duck its prom­ise of trans­par­ency, a joint Demo­crat­ic-GOP de­mand would cre­ate in­sur­mount­able polit­ic­al pres­sure.

3. Em­brace the new rule for 501(c)(4) non­profits. The root of this con­tro­versy is a law that says non­profits needs to “ex­clus­ively” fo­cus on so­cial wel­fare to be tax-ex­empt. The IRS in­ex­cus­ably ruled that so­cial wel­fare must be the groups’ “primary fo­cus,” cre­at­ing a loop­hole that both parties have ab­used. Groups such as Cross­roads GPS, cre­ated by former George W. Bush ad­viser Karl Rove, and the lib­er­al-lean­ing Pat­ri­ot Ma­jor­ity are blatantly polit­ic­al — to the point that they are rep­lic­at­ing, if not re­pla­cing, the tra­di­tion­al roles of the Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an parties. Now that a chastened IRS is try­ing to close the loop­hole, par­tis­ans on the right and left are ob­ject­ing.

4. Stop ly­ing. Both sides are dis­tort­ing the facts for polit­ic­al gain, but Issa is the worst ab­user. As Dana Mil­bank poin­ted out in his Wash­ing­ton Post column:

Earli­er in his ca­pri­cious ten­ure, he banned Demo­crat­ic wit­ness Sandra Fluke from a pan­el about birth con­trol, leav­ing an all-male slate of wit­nesses and giv­ing his Re­pub­lic­an Party a ma­jor em­bar­rass­ment. His hear­ings have been chaot­ic af­fairs in which he talks over mem­bers of his pan­el, and he has of­ten dis­cred­ited his com­mit­tee’s in­vest­ig­a­tions by mak­ing in­cen­di­ary ac­cus­a­tions that turn out to be un­foun­ded.

His latest: spec­u­lat­ing at a fun­draiser last month about why Pentagon as­sets were not mo­bil­ized to pro­tect Amer­ic­an fa­cil­it­ies in Benghazi, Libya, when they were at­tacked in 2012 be­cause Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton “told them to stand down.” But the bi­par­tis­an Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee found that there were no such or­ders. “Well,” Issa told Fox News’s Chris Wal­lace when pressed about this on Sunday, “the use in an­swer­ing ques­tions in a polit­ic­al fun­draiser, that was in re­sponse to a ques­tion, the term ‘stand down’ is not used in some sort of an ex­pli­cit way.”

On the IRS, sim­il­arly, Issa had said that it was “the tar­get­ing of the pres­id­ent’s polit­ic­al en­emies ef­fect­ively and lies about it,” and that he would prove it was dir­ec­ted “out of Wash­ing­ton headquar­ters.” But Issa found no such proof, and on Wed­nes­day he ac­know­ledged that “roads lead to Ms. Lern­er.”

Mil­bank is right: Issa has found no proof, and he should be held ac­count­able for sug­gest­ing oth­er­wise. But it’s al­most as dis­hon­est for Demo­crats to claim that there is no proof. We don’t know what a full and fair in­vest­ig­a­tion would yield. We don’t know the truth. It’s been si­lenced.

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