Arguments

How Not to Cover the IRS Pseudo-Scandal

If you have to write about the latest right-wing pseudo-scandal, at least try to avoid joining in on Paul Ryan's cheap shots.

By Nathan Pippenger

On Friday, the House Ways and Means Committee held a hearing in connection with the imaginary IRS scandal currently preoccupying conservatives. Rep. Paul Ryan, performing joyfully for the cameras, furrowed his brow as he told the IRS commissioner: “I am sitting here listening to this testimony [about targeting conservatives]. I don’t believe it. That’s your problem. Nobody believes you.” At first glance, Slate’s editors seemed to agree: they paired John Dickerson’s short write-up with a graphic reading: “Angry Conservatives Are Right About the IRS.”

I try to avoid clickbait, but I was curious to see just how counterintuitive Slate could get on this one. After all, the conservative effort to uncover an Obama Administration-IRS scandal collapsed long ago, joining a host of other pseudo-scandals that float, unburdened by fact, through the collective right-wing imagination. They’re summoned, when there’s money to be raised, or a book to crank out, or just for a laugh, by the incantation of certain phrases (Birth certificate! Solyndra! Fast and Furious! National security leaks! Benghazi!). Once the facts are out, though, few outside the right-wing echo chamber take them very seriously.

Thankfully, neither does Dickerson. It turns out that “angry conservatives” are right, not about the existence of an IRS scandal, but about the IRS being obnoxious. (Some revelation.) Siding with the indignant Ryan, Dickerson notes that the IRS—famous for demanding that Americans keep scrupulous financial records—could not turn up the emails demanded by Congress for its investigation. “It’s hard to think of a federal agency that is less forgiving about record keeping,” Dickerson writes. “Now he [the IRS Commissioner] knows how it feels.” He goes on:

One of the big complaints I hear from voters, particularly conservative voters, is that the government exempts itself from the burdens it puts on everyday people. So members of Congress are treated differently under the Affordable Care Act than regular citizens, President Obama can decide which laws he wants to follow and which ones he doesn’t, and the IRS doesn’t have to be as circumspect as the rest of us. Sometimes there are good explanations, like the congressional “exemption” from the ACA, but since the IRS is stingy with its benefit-of-the-doubt powers, it has a high bar with the public.

This is an utterly bizarre array of examples to support the argument. Dickerson offers three cases in which the government is supposedly sparing itself from demands the rest of us have to follow: the Congressional “exemption” from the ACA, President Obama’s lawlessness, and the IRS’s spotty record-keeping. Now, picking three examples can be an effective rhetorical move, but it doesn’t quite work if you admit, mere sentences later, that one of them is bunk. (Dickerson links us to an article titled “For the last time: Congress is not exempt from ObamaCare”, which is the sort of exasperated headline journalists write when their colleagues keep repeating things like “So members of Congress are treated differently under the Affordable Care Act than regular citizens.”)

The next two complaints don’t fare any better. President Obama can’t, as a point of fact, “decide which laws he wants to follow.” If President Obama stole my wallet or murdered someone, he would go to jail. He does, as the head of the executive branch, enjoy some discretion in determining how laws are executed—which is a standard presidential power that the administration has exercised in a fairly conventional way. Ruth Marcus, who contacted experts on the use of presidential power, found them saying things like: “Obama has been the least aggressive, least unilateral, of our recent presidents” and “What’s striking to me are the ways in which Obama’s behaving a lot like Bush, who was behaving a lot like Clinton.”

Lastly: I don’t know which rules govern the IRS’s record-keeping. The emails sought by Congress seem to have been lost when a computer crashed in 2011, and experts say the loss was unsurprising, given the poor state of data-backup practices across the federal government. Dickerson approvingly quotes Ryan’s hectoring of the IRS chief: “You ask taxpayers to hang on to seven years of their personal tax information in case they are ever audited, and you can’t keep six months’ worth of employee emails?” Maybe a rule requiring seven years of email backups—and additional server storage to carry out that rule—would be a good idea. But if we change the rules of government agencies, let’s do it for good reasons that actually bear some relation to the agency’s mission and purpose. Taxpayers have to keep seven years of financial records because that helps in the case of an audit. It’s silly to equate that practice with the IRS’s failure to keep some arbitrarily-defined number of emails—and as an attack on an agency doing a tough and thankless job, it’s just as stupid and posturing as the hearing itself.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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