As part of the bipartisan infrastructure negotiations, Republicans insisted that no one would be asked to pay more in taxes, especially the wealthy and big corporations who benefited from the GOP's Trump-era tax breaks. Fine, President Biden said, offering an alternative: the IRS could simply better enforce the tax laws already on the books.
Republicans balked at this, too, and despite an earlier agreement, the idea has been removed from the pending bipartisan framework at GOP senators' behest.
Yesterday, leading Republicans were pressed for some kind of explanation for rejecting a simple and effective solution that would give them what they claimed they wanted. It didn't go well.
"I don't think anybody's looking forward to an army of auditors to audit your tax returns. Unfortunately, the IRS has a reputation problem because of weaponization … the Lois Lerners of the world," Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) told a HuffPost reporter Monday.
This was, alas, the inevitable Republican talking point. When far-right groups started lobbying against the IRS provision in the infrastructure deal, they sent a letter to senators that read in part, "No additional funding for the Internal Revenue Service, especially given its multiple scandals over the past decade. We have not forgotten about Lois Lerner's tactics of using IRS enforcement to harass conservative groups and donors. Republicans in Congress shouldn't either."
Around the same time, the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal pushed the same line. "Remember Lois Lerner? During her tenure as director of exempt organizations, the IRS unfairly singled out conservative nonprofits for special scrutiny and harassment," the editorial said. "It was a sobering lesson in how one of Washington's most powerful agencies can be weaponized against political opponents."
Now, obviously, prominent GOP leaders such as Texas' John Cornyn are reading from the same script. The problem, however, is that they're relying on a made-up controversy.
As regular readers may recall, the IRS "scandal" was all the rage in the spring of 2013. The Obama White House's detractors and much of the Beltway media was quite certain the story was Watergate, Iran-Contra, Teapot Dome, Abscam, all rolled into one mega-controversy.
And then it all collapsed. Reality showed that the tax agency hadn't singled out conservatives for unfair scrutiny; there was no conspiracy; and the news organizations that were obsessed with the story when it looked bad completely lost interest when it proved meaningless. The smoking gun was a water pistol, and the political world moved on past the discredited allegations.
Congressional Republicans held hearings, which offered no evidence of wrongdoing. The FBI launched its own probe, and federal law enforcement didn't uncover anything, either. A federal prosecutor specifically concluded that Lois Lerner hadn't done anything wrong. The entire faux-scandal, which more closely resembled a mirage than a legitimate controversy, died with a whimper.
More than seven years later, Republicans either don't remember how the story turned out, or they're counting on you to not remember how the story turned out.
John Cornyn insists that the IRS has earned a reputation for having been "weaponized," but that reputation exists only in the minds of conservative imaginations, because of a scandal that did not exist in reality.
If Republicans are looking for an excuse to justify their opposition to funding the tax police, they'll have to look elsewhere.