In the Arena

Not Nixon, Exactly.

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I may have swung a bit too hard, putting Barack Obama’s Administration in the same league as Franklin Roosevelt’s and Richard Nixon’s when it comes to the Internal Revenue Service. The situation remains a major embarrassment, though.

The most important difference is that the Roosevelt and Nixon IRS depredations came from the White House. This mess seems to have percolated from the middle–the IRS’s Cincinnati office (a major facility, by the way)–up to the upper-middle. It was an overreaction, to be sure–but, as Ezra Klein explains, it was a response to a very real problem: how do you draw the line between political advocacy, which is a taxable activity, and policy advocacy, which is not, if the advocate organizes itself as a 501(c)4? Here’s Ezra:

Let’s try to keep two things in mind simultaneously: The IRS does need some kind of test that helps them weed out political organizations attempting to register as tax-exempt 501(c)4 social welfare groups. But that test has to be studiously, unquestionably neutral.

The story thus far seems both chilling and cheering. Employees at the agency’s Cincinnati branch did employ a test that, in effect, targeted tea party groups. Whether they meant it to be discriminatory or they simply created one that was discriminatory is in contention, but ultimately immaterial. The IRS, more so than almost any other agency, must act in ways above reproach.

But when the Cincinnati group explained their test to IRS exempt organizations division chief Lois G. Lerner, she objected to it and it was changed. A few months later, the IRS would release new guidance that suggested scrutinizing “political action type organizations involved in limiting/expanding Government, educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights, social economic reform movement,” and after that, “organizations with indicators of significant amounts of political campaign intervention (raising questions as to exempt purpose and/or excess private benefit.)”

The context for all this is that after Citizens United and some related decisions, the number of groups registering as 501(c)4s doubled. Because the timing of that doubling coincided with a rise in political activism on the right rather than the left, a lot of the politicized groups attempting to register as 501(c)4s were describing their purpose in tea party terms. A popular conceit, for instance, was that they existed to educate on the Constitution — even if the particular pedagogical method meant participating in Republican Party primaries and pressuring incumbent politicians.

In looking for that kind of language in 2010, the Cincinnati employees were attempting to create a usable shortcut. Like Willie Sutton robbing banks, they were going where the action was. But they needed a clearer test that also identified the language of the left, even if left-leaning groups weren’t exhibiting the same surge in activism. And, frankly, it shouldn’t have been left to career employees in Cincinnati. The IRS needed clearer rules coming from the top. But the top didn’t know what to do with these 501(c)4s, in part because it feared a situation precisely like this one.

It is worth remembering an important fact here: The IRS is supposed to reject groups that are primarily political from registering as 501(c)4s. If they’re going to do that, then they need some kind of test that helps them flag problematic applicants. And that test will have to be a bit impressionistic. It will mean taking the political rhetoric of the moment and watching for it in applications. It will require digging into the finances and activities of groups on the left and the right that seem to be political even as they’re promising their activities are primarily non-political.

If we’re not comfortable with that, then we need to either loosen the definition of 501(c)4s or create a new designation that gives explicitly political groups the benefits of the 501(c)4s (namely, they don’t have to pay taxes and they can keep their donors anonymous). But either way, as I wrote on Friday, the only way to make sure this doesn’t keep happening is for the IRS — or the Congress and White House that control it — to make some tough decisions about 501(c)4s.

Fair enough. But this isn’t over. I suspect the Republicans will take this the same route as Benghazi–why wasn’t the screwup made public when it became known internally in 2011? There will be a search for tell-tale emails. There will be hearings with the insufferable Darrell Issa of California leading the charge. There will be, yet again, a Republican attempt to turn a sin that seems venial into a mortal one for the Obama Administration. And the real question will be camouflaged in a blast of smoke and puffy: What is more dangerous to our democracy, the Obama Administration’s massaging of its mistakes or the Republicans’ constant campaign to paralyze our government through diversions like these?

363 comments
MichaelStephenson
MichaelStephenson

Joe Klein is not too worried about Obama's deceptions and lawlessness.  What a shocker this is. Nope, in the face of the IRS scandal, the illegal prisoner swap, the Benghazi coverup, the ISIS response ineptitude, etc. etc., Joe is worried about Republicans. 


I keep hopig to see the Democrat palace eunuch in the media wake up, but they've been bowing so deeply so long I think they may have damaged their cognitive abilities. Keep up the Obama genuflection Joe... it is great theater for those of us still able to see and think clearly. We'll send more kneepads if you need 'em.



KristineAz
KristineAz

Ezra Klein?  Seriously?  As if that isn't one of the most biased apologists in existence.  There's no point in reading ANYTHING from that guy if you're looking for something objective.  What a joke.

joanma
joanma

Joe Klein again covering for Obama. "GOP to paralyze  Government?" Can you tell us who gave the order to "stand down" in Benghazi? Help was available! Some in military speaking out & 3 career diplomats who know what happened but live in fear of it costing them their careers.   Did you know how long the attack would last?2 Seals gave their lives to allow 30 people to escape the consulate. 4 Americans died! What was the Ambassador doing there in the first place?? The mother who lost their sons want to know. they were lied to when the bodies were brought back. Hilary told one mom "we'll get the guy who did the video".  Why the lies? You think this is a joke, GOP wanting answers. You sir are a joke of a journalist. You investigated Nixon great job, but it's hands off for your guy. Tell me please, who would have the motivation to get the IRS to go after the Tea party, Patriots, Catholic league, Jewish organizations, any group perceived to be an obstacle?? All this was done  to help get Obama re-elected. FBI raided Gibson guitars with 30 men in combat uniforms and destroyed their computer system among other destruction. Gibson  has never been tried for anything but has cost them $2.4 mil in legal fees. Who is giving these orders? Attacking innocent people because they donated to the GOP. Some one in the WH is doing this. WHO? Now Obama wants Eric Holder to investigate Eric Holder. And has 45 days? Stall, lie, stall, lie is the way this WH operates. Give congress 100 pages of 2000 documents. And you blame the GOP b because this is taking so long?   What ever happened to the TRUTH?       

NatalieParkSchutz
NatalieParkSchutz

What a pleasure it is to read sane thinking. I am a long term admirer, but Joe Klein articles only occasionally get into our two newspapers, the San Jose Mercury News and NYT. Discovering the ability to follow your articles via FB or Twitter or whatever  is wondrous to me. I am 81, a retired schoolteacher with plenty of ability in the "old" way of finding things out. I am computer literate on some levels, but the wonders of Twitter and FB are just opening to me; I am an "immigrant" into the tech world, like, say, a Balkan immigrant who can learn to cope in a new world, sort of, but not comfortably; just look at any teenager. They were born here in the tech world; I was not. Thanks be that I am slowly getting this new world.     

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

This might shock you, but the politicos weighing in on the IRS scandal aftermath occasionally leap to conclusions. Over the weekend, the National Republican Congressional Committee issued attacks on Democratic incumbents because they (or more realistically, their spokesmen) had not issued responses to the scandal. (For example: "We all know that Tim Bishop could care less about crushing debt and wasteful government spending, but his failure to speak up on these issues on behalf of [his] constituents is flat out wrong.") A big assumption on the right is that Democrats spurred the IRS's bad behavior by banging the table about the Kochs and Karl Rove and all those rich people hiding money in tax-exempt "social welfare" groups.

Why assume? Because the IG report actually absolves the rest of the administration and the Obama campaign from the accusation of direct pressure. The key lines:

We asked the Acting Commissioner, Tax Exempt and Government Entities Division; the Director, EO; and Determinations Unit personnel if the criteria were influenced by any individual or organization outside the IRS. All of these officials stated that the criteria were not influenced by any individual or organization outside the IRS. Instead, the Determinations Unit developed and implemented inappropriate criteria in part due to insufficient oversight provided by management. Specifically, only first-line management approved references to the Tea Party in the BOLO [Be on the Look-Out] listing criteria before it was implemented. As a result, inappropriate criteria remained in place for more than 18 months.

This is why, since the report came out, you've heard more questions about when/why/how key Democrats learned of the story, and why they didn't react until the AP broke the news last Friday. Recall that the IRS officials dinged here are often career officials and Bush appointees -- not great scalps. The IG's saying that they're the only scalps that deserved to be separated from their skulls.

spk2moi
spk2moi

This might hold water, except there are no hold-ups for "progressive"/regressive liberal groups. Only for conservatives. So indeed it's much more like Nixon than you want to admit. This president has always gone after his enemies! Ala Nixon. 

paulejb
paulejb

Wonder if Joe Klein was worried about his phone records?

manapp99
manapp99

I find it interesting that the only defense the Democrats seem to have for the latest round of scandals from a Presidential administration is the behaviour of other past misdeeds by other administrations. Kind of like saying gang activity is ok because what the Mafia did in the past. Is the bar for the Obama administration so low that he only has to match the worst of past administrations be deemed a success? 

spk2moi
spk2moi

@joanma I agree totally Joanma. Your questions, all starting with WHO are extremely relevant. Too bad Mr. Klein seems to have no journalistic curiosity (or integrity) when it comes to answering the key questions in each of these scandals. I predict there will be more scandals, since this presidency has been about bullying and thug style governance.

MikeKelter
MikeKelter

@mantisdragon91 :  there are a couple of things you have incorrect:

1.  It really doesn't matter who appointed government employees who are out of control.  The are not "out-of-control Bush Appointees" nor are they "out-of-control Obama Appointees".  They are simply out-of-control government appointees.  Having said that, the Commissioner of the TEGE was Sarah Hall Ingram (Obama Appointee), and the Director of Exempt Organizations (EO) Division was Lois G. Lerner (also an Obama Appointee).

2. The IG Report does not absolve the administration and Obama campaign from accusation of direct pressure.  IG's do not have supoenae powers, nor can they recommend disciplinary actions when they find wrong doing.  IG's cannot investigate outside the organizations they are chartered to serve.  


Yesterday, the Obama Administration attempted to blame the entire incident on two flunky employees at the Cincinnati Office.      These accusations totally ignore the IG report, which lays most of the blame at the EO and it's Determination Unit, both of which are located in Washington DC--not Cincinnati, Ohio.

musicman495
musicman495

@paulejb I was not aware that Joe was filing for 501(c)4 status.  It is very obvious that ring wingers like Mike Huckabee (and you perhaps?) are purposely trying to conflate the IRS scrutinizing 501(c)4 group applications with having individual political opponents audited, a la the Nixon White House.  They ain't the same thing.  Joe Klein made that same mistake the other day, and some of us called him on it, which is why he backpedaled here.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@paulejb Seeing as he lived through the Bush years where this precedent was set and proven to be legal, he should be.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@manapp99 No the point is that there was an amazing over reach of presidential power by the last administration, and once that precedent has been set, no President will willingly give back those powers.

joanma
joanma

@spk2moi @joanma Thanks. I am truly worried about this WH. The Press used to be the watch dog of government misdeeds, now all they do is duck & cover.  So many members of the alphabet networks have relatives working in the WH. what's up with that?     

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@joanma @mantisdragon91 What is your fascination with Soros? Soros is a small fry compared to the corporate criminals buying the soul of the GOP and Astoturfing the Tea Party movement.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@MikeKelter @mantisdragon91 If the Obama administration merely blames two flunkies than why did they force the acting IRS Commissioner to resign? Remember the IRS was doing similar things(there was non 501C Status then instead they were threatening to take away existing tax exemptions) in 2004 to Bush opponents, and yet it was swept under the rug and no one was forced to resign.

joanma
joanma

@mantisdragon91 @spk2moi I don't get this argument. "well bush did it too". have you ever heard "two wrongs do not make a right?" If you told your mom  "Billy's mom said he could".  My mom would say " I'm not Billy's mom, do what I say". This argument "Bush did it, is so lame, I can't believe adults use that to justify continued misdeeds of this WH. Grow up people.  Wrong is wrong!  Can we ever get the truth out of this WH?

PatrickDanielFlynn
PatrickDanielFlynn

Soooo.... What? Are you suggesting this is a good thing and a way to govern? I'm sorry but if the best standard you have is Bush you don't deserve to vote.

PatrickDanielFlynn
PatrickDanielFlynn

How about leaking confidential files and applications to the press. I think we have a whole lot of wishful thinking going on in left leaning circles.

joanma
joanma

@mantisdragon91 @manapp99 Actually if you know anything about the history of this country , there has always been overreach by some. it didn't start with Bush!! Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase all on his own. Considered a HUGE overreach at the time. But it was a GOOD THING. Not evil like what we see today. The founders always weighed what was good for the nation to save the union. The north (Federalists party) was threatening secession but after the purchase dropped their plans. Really, ignorance seems to be the biggest disappointment I have with people like you. Learn some history. the ignorant always want to blame Bush, cuz  that's all they have. Check out FDR, LBJ and the list goes on.

manapp99
manapp99

@mantisdragon91 @manapp99 And the one before that and the one before that and so on. When do we stop the abuses? I suppose you want us to wait until a GOP president is elected THEN go after him or her. This a partisan thing for you and I believe you are having a problem with the fact that Obama is just like the rest of them. No hope no change just more of the same. 

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@joanma @mantisdragon91 @spk2moi And if Fox News is the only network that tells the whole story, remind me again what they were saying as Bush and his cronies authorized wire tapping, torture, signing statements and lied to us about Saddam being behind 9/11?

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@joanma @mantisdragon91 @spk2moi My arguments are just silly? So you are okay with being spoon fed propaganda by a network owned by a man that was caught wiretapping phones in the UK and is probably doing the same here as we speak? And what does the first amendment have to do with the fact that the media helped Bush lie to us about why we invaded Iraq and why the 9/11 Commission reports were kept hidden until after the 2004 election?

joanma
joanma

@mantisdragon91 @joanma @spk2moi Again, you don't know your history. The first amendment guaranteed Freedom of speech. Madison in writing it noted that a Free press would keep government powers in check. But why bother explaining. You will just find Bush at fault. Fox News is the only network Obama went after. He has criticized Fox  every chance he gets because they are the only ones who tell the whole story. There are always Democrats on every panel and amazingly some of them occasionally find a tiny fault with the WH. Like when the WH doesn't get their story right. Reporters from the Wash Post and NYT appear also presenting their slant to the news. It's educational but doubt you would care about that. 

I'm beginning to think you are just playing Devil's Advocate. Your arguments are just silly.   

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@joanma @spk2moi Press used to be a watchdog of presidential misdeeds? When? When we were lied to about the reasons we went to war in Iraq or why the 9/11 commission reports were kept hidden until after the 2004 election? And its amusing how you are scared about the relatives of members of the Alphabet networks working for the WH, and yet have absolutely no concern for the fact that the actual owners of New Corps which own Fox News and the Wall Street Journal are driving the policy of the GOP.

joanma
joanma

@mantisdragon91 @MikeKelter Obama has increased wire taping, screening when he promised to do away with the patriot act. but then he says a lot of things that don't ring true.  

MikeKelter
MikeKelter

@mantisdragon91 @MikeKelter 

"Why would he?"  Because Obama promised to roll back warrantless wiretaps.  However, in 2009 when Obama's Democrats controlled both houses of Congress with overwhelming majorities, Obama chose to reauthorize the Patriot Act with no changes.

Obama is not known to be a very hard worker, so it is no surprise that he hasn't done what he said he's going to do.  For many of us, that is a blessing--for some of you it isn't.  Nonetheless, it is worth mentioning that lazy people tend to blame others for their failures.  Bush is long gone--it does no good to keep blaming Bush.  That's lazy doing the thinking for you.

It probably does no good to blame Obama either--he's lazy now and he'll likely always be lazy.  Don't look for the Hope and Change that maybe you voted for.  Change takes work and work won't come from Obama anytime soon. 

My hope for change is that Obama faces opposition in two houses of Congress, just as Clinton did in 1994.  It did Slick Willie a world of good to have opposition in both houses of Congress.  But, to Clinton's credit, he was a much smarter man than Obama--he learned from his mistake.  Obama is too lazy and too arrogant, so the opportunity will likely pass him by.  


mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@MikeKelter @mantisdragon91 Why would he. Once a president acquires powers he is always reluctant to give them up. That is why its foolish to turn your back on the source of where are those extra powers came from.

MikeKelter
MikeKelter

@mantisdragon91 @MikeKelter 

Didn't notice Obama rolling back government powers now that one of the two wars has ended.  Also didn't notice Obama wrapping up the Iraq War  until just before the election (3-years and 4 months after the surge ended our need to be there).  About the time we were beating a two-month retreat from Iraq was about the time Obama was wire-tapping the Associated Press.  

Yeah, I know, it was Bush's fault. 


mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@MikeKelter @mantisdragon91 You quit worrying about Bush in 2009 and yet his legacy lives on. Because of his expansion of power we are stuck with wire taps, signing statements and expanded presidential powers during war time. So in other words all our liberties are screwed.

MikeKelter
MikeKelter

@mantisdragon91 @MikeKelter 

Miller was retiring anyway--no problem for Obama to get rid of a Bush Appointee a couple of months earlier.

Nothing happened to Obama's girls:  Ingram and Lerner.  Ingram go promoted to be in charge of enforcing ObamaCare--it make a lot of people really comfortable to have that political hack in charge of our medical information.  

As far as Bush is concerned, I quit worrying about him in January 2009--you should get over him as well.


mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@joanma @mantisdragon91 @spk2moi So why are the same networks and politicians that were yelling at everyone that questioning a sitting president during war time is treason when much worse offenses were committed in the past, now leading the charge?

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@joanma @mantisdragon91 @spk2moi I see so out of curiosity where you here yelling wrong is wrong when this and much worse things were done by the previous administration or are you just here practicing selective outrage?

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@PatrickDanielFlynn I'm suggesting that we don't know enough about what happened to grab torches and pitchforks. At least this administration admitted it was a problem and stated that it won't be tolerated. The last one ignored it and said nothing at all.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@joanma @mantisdragon91 @manapp99 I see some things wrong in this WH but the issues I have with them is their lack of willingness to prosecute the criminals on Wall Street that have crashed our economy in the first place and have no effectively defanged all regulation that would keep them from doing it again.

joanma
joanma

@mantisdragon91 @joanma @manapp99 Can you read? That is not what I said. Bad overreach is bad. But sometimes overreach is done for good.  I wasn't on this site when Bush was in power as I was still working till age 71. I had plenty of criticism about Bush, but his misdeeds do not absolve This pres. Two wrongs do not make a right!!!!

Can't you see that?

Can you honestly say you see nothing wrong going on in this WH?   

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@joanma @mantisdragon91 @manapp99 Better yet lets start with the real criminals the GOP who have their hands all over the fiscal collapse and the two unpaid for wars, plus numerous other scandals and crimes against our country.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@manapp99@mantisdragon91

And for us to nip these activities in the bud we need to go after and prosecute the architects of the greatest expansion in presidential power since Nixon. An expansion that encompassed among other things wiretapping, torture and expanded wartime powers free from Congressional scrutiny.

manapp99
manapp99

@mantisdragon91 @manapp99 I have to agree with you there. Time for average citizens to ditch the party loyalty and come together against the bad actors in government at all levels. I do believe that many in government are good and honest people but way too many are not. We have just rolled over and accepted that government officials lie and abuse power. Then people tend to justify the abuses based on party loyalty. The fact is that government as intended by the founders was to have no secrets from the people and the people were to be able to live without the government prying into their private lives. Now the people are allowed no secrets and we are not allowed to know what the government is really doing. 

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@manapp99 @mantisdragon91 In that case I agree with you. The problem is that we have been turned into spectators who merely root for our "team" and overlook the bigger issues all around us.

manapp99
manapp99

@mantisdragon91 @manapp99 Absolutely. I would happily root out any of the bad actors in government regardless of which team they represent. 100%

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@manapp99 @mantisdragon91 No we stop the abuse by rooting out everyone who enabled the abuses, which happens to be many sitting GOP Senators and Congressmen. Are you willing to do that?