Congress is back in town, and I trust you’re as thrilled as I am. The lawmakers plan to run out the clock until Election Day, to address our woes as little as possible (money for the Zika crisis? hello?). To paraphrase Shakespeare, their only aspiration is to strut and fret upon the stage, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
For instance, the House’s right-wing extremists are still obsessed with something that happened six years ago, when the IRS targeted some conservative groups for extra scrutiny. They’re also convinced that the IRS crafted a deliberate coverup, so now they want to impeach IRS Commissioner John Koskinen — even though he wasn’t even commissioner when the IRS’ Cincinnati office did the scrutiny. Congress has never impeached a sub-Cabinet executive in the history of the republic (if you’re counting, that’s 217 years), but radicals don’t respect tradition.
Speaker Paul Ryan, knowing full well that a concerted attempt to impeach Koskinen would make the Republicans look like idiots on the eve of an election, hosed down his extremists by striking a deal: No impeachment push, but he’d give them a chance to strut and fret at a House Judiciary Committee hearing with Koskinen in the hot seat.
That’s what happened yesterday. As the right-wing witch-hunters thundered from the dais, it was nice to be reminded that Donald Trump did not invent Republican lies and looniness. He’s merely the extreme manifestation of the extremism that pervaded yesterday’s hearing. Such as:
The IRS’ 2010 targeting of conservative groups was “a direct attack on freedom of speech, and, thus, an attack on our Constitution and democracy!” It was “a tyrannical abuse of power!” And the subsequent (alleged) coverup “betrayed the country!” Therefore, “all we’re asking is that this guy no longer hold this office!”
That rhetoric was clearly aimed at denizens of the fever swamp. Their votes are crucial to Republicans on election day, and they’ve long believed that President Obama’s scary leftist leviathan has long plotted to oppress them. So naturally they’ve been deaf, dumb, and blind to the factual truth of the IRS episode — but what the heck, let’s fill in the nuances. If only for our own edification.
It all started in January 2010, when the conservatives justices on the U.S. Supreme Court wrote their disastrous Citizens United ruling, which made it way easier for all kinds of folks to pump money into politics. The ruling inspired hundreds of political groups to take advantage of an IRS loophole. By setting up shop as 501(c)4 nonprofits — “social welfare” organizations — these groups didn’t have to disclose their donors.
But under IRS rules, social welfare organizations can’t be “primarily engaged” in election work. So the IRS Cincinnati office, which monitors non-profits, suddenly had the thankless task of weeding out the overtly political groups. Thanks to Citizens United, the number of non-profits quickly doubled. So the Cincinnati office started to scrutinize the applicants more closely. It flagged groups with “tea party” and “patriot” in the title (it also flagged groups with progressive names), because it was an easy way to get a handle on the burgeoning workload.
This was all about bureaucracy, not conspiracy. When the conservative groups were flagged in 2010, the commissioner was a George W. Bush appointee. Lois Lerner, the lawyer who headedd the non-profit division, served in the IRS for eight years under Bush, and she got her start in the Justice Department under Ronald Reagan. And when hapless House Republican Darrell Issa – who made Inspector Clouseau look like James Bond – insisted in 2013 that President Obama had ordered the IRS to screen the conservative groups, he was flatly contradicted by the Cincinnati screening manager.
In 2013, the screening manager was called to testify. He was asked whether the IRS had been ordered to screen “the president’s political enemies.” He replied: “I do not believe the targeting of these cases had anything to do (with that).” He was asked, again, whether he believed “that anyone in the White House was involved in the decision to screen tea party cases.” He replied: “I have no reason to believe that.” He was asked, again, whether “anyone in the White House” sought to “centralize the review of tea party cases.” He replied: “I have no reason to believe that.” He was asked, again, whether there were any “political motivations” behind the screenings. He replied: “I’m not aware of that.”
And he was asked to describe his party affiliation. His reponse: “I am a conservative Republican.”
Subsequently, the Treasury Department’s inspector general – a Republican appointee – conducted a prove and found no evidence of political motivation. The right-wing beef about Koskinen is that he supposedly abetted a coverup of the (non-)scandal after he came on board in 2014. A lot of IRS emails were deleted at a time when Koskinen, the new guy, was telling Congress that “every email has been preserved.” But the Republican-appointed Treasury inspector general concluded in 2015: “No evidence was uncovered that any IRS employes had been directed to destroy or hide information.”
Somehow, Koskinen’s behavior doesn’t seem to meet the impeachment standard of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Which brings us to yesterday’s most fun moment:
Democrats on the panel took the opportunity to ask the commish for some advice. They wanted to know whether someone who’s being audited by the IRS is free to release his tax returns. Koskinen said yes. They also wanted to know if someone with a charitable foundation is free to take money from that foundation for personal use – to buy portraits and football helmets, for instance, or to settle lawsuits. Koskinen said that, no, charitable money shouldn’t be used for such purposes.
All told, it was a predictably bad day for the right-wingers’ crackpot crusade. But who knows, maybe they were just gunning the engine for their first bill of impeachment against Hillary Clinton. If she gets elected, I give them 90 days.