Let me be perhaps the first human being in America to declare that the controversy over the IRS’s alleged persecution of conservative groups is, to use a technical term, a steaming pile of cow poop.
As it happens, cow poop is one of our nation’s most precious resources, and in the days and weeks to come you can rest assured that this cow poop will be used to fertilize both the political fortunes of the Republican Party and the precarious balance sheet of our sanctimonious free press.
Yes, Virginia, nothing sells papers like a good old-fashioned fake scandal, and this one — which conveniently affirms the perpetual persecution complex that has become the default setting of the conservative movement — will be flogged to death.
But let’s look at the actual events and the larger context in which they occurred, by which I mean “the facts,” those stupid things Ronald Reagan was always complaining about.
In 2010, the conservative members of the Supreme Court voted, at the behest of a group called Citizens United, to eliminate many of the campaign finance laws enacted after Watergate.
The one that gets most of the ink involves allowing corporations (who are really just giant people whose consciences happen to function like cash registers) to make unlimited and anonymous political contributions.
But Citizens United also decreed that organizations devoted to issues of “social welfare” could apply for tax-exempt status as 501(c)(4)s.
Immediately, thousands of groups sought the exemption. Almost all of them were and are blatantly political operations. This includes the corporate slush funds run by Karl Rove and his Democratic counterparts.
The IRS, meanwhile, is required by Congress to review every application for tax-exempt status, and has been since 1913. That means it’s the job of auditors to determine if a group is primarily engaged in politics or seeks to promote “the common good and social welfare of a community.”
That’s a pretty complicated judgment to make, especially when the number of applications for these so-called 501(c)(4)s has skyrocketed, while the IRS budget has been slashed by 17 percent per capita over the past decade.
Those of you who have worked at a job in which there were sudden increases in the demand for work output, combined with sharp cuts in staffing, may now be a position to guess what happened next.
It’s called triage. IRS auditors, in an effort to flag applications that were primarily political organizations, set aside 300 for a closer look. Of these, a third had “Tea Party” or “Patriot” in their name or explanatory papers.
Now, if anyone wants to argue that “Tea Party” groups are primarily interested in promoting social welfare, versus pursuing a partisan agenda, I would ask that you identify a single democratic candidate or issue supported by such groups.
So here’s what we’ve got: a bunch of IRS workers guilty of using a short cut to finish a task Congress charged them with performing.
For all the whining we’ll hear about how Tea Party groups had their rights trampled, not a single one has yet to claim its tax-exempt status was denied. They just had to fill out long questionnaires and wait a long time. Wah wah!
Ironically, the application of at least one progressive group was actually denied, and others had to answer the same questions as Tea Party groups.
But of course, with a few notable exceptions, you won’t hear any of this silly context from your friends in the media. Why undermine such a juicy narrative?
Instead, we’ll get endless investigations and congressional hearings and the paranoid ranting of our professionally aggrieved right-wing media. We’ll hear that Obama is somehow behind all this, despite the fact that the IRS commissioner at the time of the alleged witch-hunt, Doug Shulman, was appointed by President George W. Bush. Pundits will pontificate. GOPers will hyperventilate. A bunch of people will get fired, starting with acting IRS commissioner Steven Miller, Shulman’s successor, who resigned Wednesday, at the request of Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, though he had nothing to do with any of this nonsense.
The larger outrage — that political groups of all persuasions are lying about their ambitions to avoid paying taxes, that corporations have been given license to pollute our political discourse with propaganda — will be lost in a din of grandstanding.
This isn’t Watergate, folks.
The big cover-up here isn’t being perpetrated by the president, but a Fourth Estate too craven and hysterical even to identify the true moral folly lurking in its own frantic news cycles.