In this April 13, 2014 file photo, the Internal Revenue Service Headquarters (IRS) building is seen in Washington, D.C.
Photo by J. David Ake/AP

The demise of the IRS ‘scandal’ and the need for accountability

There was a brief point a few years ago in which the IRS “scandal” looked like a legitimate, proper controversy, worthy of real scrutiny. As regular readers may recall, when the story first broke, there was reason to believe politically motivated officials at the Internal Revenue Service “targeted” conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, and the uneven treatment represented an outrageous abuse of power. President Obama even denounced what he saw as possible wrongdoing.

After a few days, though, the story unraveled. Despite the apoplexy from Republicans and much of the Beltway media, we soon discovered that the tax agency scrutinized groups from the left, right, and center with equal vigor, effectively ending the story.

Much of the right, however, wouldn’t give up, convinced that they’d finally found a credible Obama-era scandal. They were spectacularly wrong: the Justice Department and the FBI launched an exhaustive search and found nothing. The Washington Post reports today that the Treasury Department came up empty, too.

A federal watchdog has identified scores of cases in which the Internal Revenue Service may have targeted liberal-leaning groups for extra scrutiny based on their names or political leanings, a finding that could undermine claims that conservatives were unfairly targeted under President Barack Obama.

The Washington Post’s phrasing is quite generous: the revelations “could undermine claims that conservatives were unfairly targeted under President Barack Obama”? If “could undermine” is synonymous with “completely discredits,” then sure.

For those of us who’ve followed the story closely, this new reporting isn’t exactly a breakthrough moment. The “scandal” evaporated years ago, and despite assorted partisans desperately trying to keep it alive, every serious examination has come to the same conclusion: the controversy never existed. After several years of scrutiny and multiple investigations, there’s just nothing here.

The only thing missing is some accountability.

As we discussed a couple of years ago, Republicans got a little hysterical when hyping the IRS story. The then-chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee said the controversy “started with the White House.” The then-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee insisted the IRS was guided by “the enemies list out of the White House.” The then-chairman of the House Intelligence Committee alleged, without proof, that the IRS engaged in “criminal behavior” that can be traced back to “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”

One Republican pundit went so far as to argue, in all seriousness, “We are in the midst of the worst Washington scandal since Watergate.”

But they were wrong – completely, demonstrably, and at times hilariously wrong – though nearly all of the partisans responsible for pushing the bogus story have been reluctant to acknowledge the fact the “scandal” proved to be a mirage.

Making matters quite a bit worse, much of the GOP and its allies still believe this is a legitimate controversy, unmoved by the fact that after four years of looking for damaging evidence, they haven’t found anything.

I’ve long suspected the motivation for treating this nonsense as a real story was a degree of envy: the right was bothered by the fact that Barack Obama led a scandal-free White House for eight years, so they clung to the IRS story like a life-preserver, hoping against hope that it’d tarnish the Democratic president’s legacy.

They were sadly mistaken.