Did my wife’s cosmetics give her breast cancer? By John F. Wasik
Lead in lipstick. Formaldehyde in suntan oil. The cosmetics you use every day are likely to include any number of ingredients that haven’t been tested for their safety. Why hasn’t the FDA done more to ban toxins from cosmetics? In our newest issue, John Wasik reports on the FDA’s shocking lack of power to regulate the cosmetics industry, and the efforts of the cosmetics industry to avoid oversight. He also tells an intensely personal story of his wife’s battle with breast cancer and the potential role of cosmetics in her diagnosis.
Even as “investigators” seek without much success so far to find evidence that the IRS scrutiny of applications for 501(c)(4) status represents a vast political conspiracy—one that might have changed the outcome of the 2012 election, no less—the aggrieved Tea Party Movement is taking action, as reflected in this excited account from the Boston Herald’s Antonio Planas:
Tea Party groups plan to picket IRS offices in downtown Boston at noon today, as part of a nationwide wave of protests fueled by rage over the harassment of conservative groups — one of several Obamagate scandals that activists say are breathing new life into their movement and swelling their ranks.
Local Tea Party leaders say they have sent out emails to alert everyone on their mailing lists about a protest today from noon to 1 p.m. at the John F. Kennedy Federal Building.
“The reason we’re there is to focus the public’s attention on the IRS,” said Ted Tripp of the Merrimack Valley Tea Party. “There is something that is going on there that is not good for the public, not good for the country, and has to be cleaned up.”
My first two reactions to this news were (1) Isn’t the Tea Party Movement permanently mobilized against the IRS for confiscating hard-earned income to redistribute it to those people? and (2) Obamagate? Really? Is that what conservative journalists have decided to call Benghazi/IRS/AP? Is that the best they can do?
But Planas’ story-line goes on with this note of vengeance: the Democrat Party’s going to regret messing with the Tea Folk:
The growing controversy over the IRS targeting of Tea Party groups is “like hitting a Tea Party hornet’s nest with a baseball bat,” said Scott Ferson, a Democratic strategist with the Liberty Square Group. “The scandals, the IRS issue, it’s going to agitate the Tea Party population.”
And leaders with local and national Tea Party groups said interest has jumped since the scandals broke less than two weeks ago.
“My phone is ringing off the hook,” Hernandez said. He said he’s received at least 20 calls from people who want to join in the past few days.
“There’s a fire that has been lit. It has rejuvenated the Tea Party,” Hernandez said. “We will come a lot stronger now.”
I would have hoped everybody has figured out by now that the Tea Party Movement is not some news-from-nowhere citizens uprising that’s recruiting previously apolitical Americans in a battle against Washington, but a large, radicalized segment of the conservative “base” of the GOP (none the less Republican for the self-identified independent status of many Tea Folk, who vote Republican very loyally but don’t want to identify with it because they don’t trust it is or will remain sufficiently conservative). As such, it is much less a threat to the Democratic Party than to the GOP—insofar as Republicans have political objectives that don’t always coincide with the truculant and ideologically extreme attitudes of the activist “base.”
If I were a Republican, I wouldn’t be chortling about the return of Tea Folk to the barricades, even if it helps the party try to convert the obscure doings in Cincinnati into some general assault on the American people by IRS “auditors” lusting to break down doors and seize assets. And I wouldn’t be so sure it’s a great idea to “hit the hornet’s nest” by making this “scandal” a 24/7 occupation. If I were really a hard-core-Glenn-Beck-listening conspiracy theorist, I might even suspect the secular-socialists had cooked up this whole thing not only to distract attention from Benghazi!, but to make the GOP go a little crazier when some intelligent strategy is really what it needs.
At Wonkblog this morning, Brad Plumer has an informative and sobering post on the difficulty of predicting tornadoes, and of preparing those in their path to take the right precautions. (He also notes the National Weather Service, our only real asset in dealing with such violent weather events before they happen, is facing significant resources problems thanks to sequestration).
I would guess many readers live in the ever-widening areas of the country where tornadoes are a real if only occasional threat. As it happens, I was in a house hit by a small tornado a while back in the very unlikely location of rural central Virginia. And while no one was injured, the suddenness and violence of the event is almost impossible to convey to anyone who hasn’t live through one (I was looking out the window at a huge, ancient two-trunked tree and saw each trunk snap off and fly away like a toothpick; it was over before I was even able to register fear).
The essential nature of a natural disaster as a cultural and even political phenomenon is something almost unimaginable happening to places and people, sometimes distant, sometimes quite near. The ability to empathize isn’t automatic, even in the case of domestic events, as we saw during Katrina. But as more and more Americans are exposed to violent weather events (as is clearly happening, whether or not one is willing to internalize the fact that greenhouse gas-related “global climate change” means changes in climate everywhere), perhaps the silver lining is that we won’t perceive them as exotic and random “acts of God,” but as disasters affecting our fellow citizens commanding quick and essential public reaction, and where possible, prevention.
In case you don’t really want to spend a lot of time following the Benghazi! investigation by House Republicans, but want to get an idea where it is headed, here’s the word from someone who passionately cares about Benghazi!, conservative journalist Byron York of the Washington Examiner:
Until now, most press coverage of the Benghazi matter has focused on the administration’s misleading talking points explaining the attack on the U.S. facility in Libya. But just beneath the surface is the investigation into a potentially more explosive part of the Benghazi story: Whether the U.S. government did everything it could to save Americans whose lives were at risk in the chaotic hours of Sept. 11, 2012.
Translation: the “talking points” saga turned out to be a dry hole (embarassing, indeed, to Republicans once it became clear doctored quotes from emails were at the source of the “press coverage” York is talking about). So it’s time to look elsewhere for Benghazi! oxygen.
York then goes on to discuss today’s House Armed Services Committee meeting (closed to the media) with Pentagon officials aimed, it is clear, at finding holes in the administration’s claim that nothing much could have been done to prevent the killings in Benghazi. Since it’s “whistleblower” Gregory Hicks who’s kept the “scandal” alive, his obvious feeling that a rescue mission could have been launched—or could have been launched if the appropriate security precautions had been in place—is now driving the investigations.
But York’s explanation contains a line of inquiry that shows the underpinnings of this stage of the long-running Benghazi! show even more clearly:
“The people in Benghazi had been fighting all night,” Hicks testified. “They were tired. They were exhausted.” And then the would-be relief mission came to a premature end before it began. “As Col. Gibson and his three personnel were getting in the cars,” Hicks said, “he stopped, and he called them off and said — told me that he had not been authorized to go.”
Congress is still trying to learn who gave that order.
And then there are questions about what the commander in chief was doing while all that was under way. On “Fox News Sunday,” White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer had little to say when asked what President Obama did as the attacks unfolded.
“He was in constant touch that night with his national security team and kept up to date with the events as they were happening,” Pfeiffer said.
But with whom was he talking? asked host Chris Wallace. The president spoke once with the secretary of defense and once, hours later, with the secretary of state. What was he doing in between those talks?
“He was talking to his national security staff,” Pfeiffer answered.
“Was he in the Situation Room?”
“He was kept up to date throughout the day.”
It wasn’t exactly an in-depth portrait of an engaged commander in chief.
York doesn’t completely connect the dots for us, but it’s obvious the idea here is to contrast Obama’s allegedly indifferent behavior during Benghazi! with his high level of personal engagement during the operation to kill Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad, Pakistan. And so the grainy details of the Benghazi! investigation are beginning to converge with its political aim: to neutralize the perceptions of Barack Obama as a tough commander-in-chief who can be trusted to protect our national security, and return to the pre-Abbotabad conservative portrait of the 44th president as a weak and ignorant Muslim-lover who plays politics while Americans are threatened and killed.
And so “The Vetting” of Barack Obama, well into its fifth year, continues.
With the release of a new WaPo/ABC poll taken late last week, it’s reasonably clear yesterday’s CNN-ORC survey didn’t represent any sort of outlier: so far the cries of scandal hysteria that gripped big segments of the MSM all that week aren’t much shared by the public, at least in terms of basic feelings towards the president and the parties in Congress. Obama’s job approval ratio is 51/44, pretty much where it’s been in the WaPo/ABC survey (with the exception of a brief uptick around the New Year) since late last summer, though “disapproval” is down a bit. Americans have clearly heard a lot about the “scandals,” but reaction to them continues to break down largely along party lines.
Generally speaking, the numbers are likely to tempt congressional Republicans to raise the volume of their shrieking about Benghazi! and the IRS another notch or two in hopes that with the help of MSM echoes they’ll achieve a public opinion breakthrough. But there’s a brace of questions that might give them pause: asked if congressional Republicans are “mainly concentrating on things that are important to you personally,” 33% say “yes,” 60% “no” (the answers on that question among independents are even a bit worse than the overall numbers). Congressional Democrats do significantly better on that question (43/50), and the president does better than either (51/44).
So in trying to align public opinion with their belief that all the problems facing a country that’s still struggling economically should be forgotten while we all obsess about who did what when in a complex and increasingly distant set of circumstances in Benghazi or Cincinnati, congressional Republicans may just convince people they are more out of touch than ever. I don’t think there is even a remote possibility the GOP can or will let up now (probably less that the possibility that House members will spend their final days still croaking about Benghazi! in nursing facilities). But if the numbers stay the way they are looking right now, Republicans will eventually have to choose between feeding the beast of “the base” or trying to look like a responsive and relevant political party.
Here’s hoping the congressional response to the tornado disaster in Oklahoma shows a little greater sense of urgency and compassion than that exhibited by the state’s two United States Senators (per HuffPost’s Christina Willkie):
As frantic rescue missions continued Monday in Oklahoma following the catastrophic tornadoes that ripped through the state, it appeared increasingly likely that residents who lost homes and businesses would turn to the federal government for emergency disaster aid. That could put the state’s two Republican senators in an awkward position.
Sens. Jim Inhofe and Tom Coburn, both Republicans, are fiscal hawks who have repeatedly voted against funding disaster aid for other parts of the country. They also have opposed increased funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which administers federal disaster relief.
Late last year, Inhofe and Coburn both backed a plan to slash disaster relief to victims of Hurricane Sandy. In a December press release, Coburn complained that the Sandy Relief bill contained “wasteful spending,” and identified a series of items he objected to, including “$12.9 billion for future disaster mitigation activities and studies.”
Coburn spokesman John Hart on Monday evening confirmed that the senator will seek to ensure that any additional funding for tornado disaster relief in Oklahoma be offset by cuts to federal spending elsewhere in the budget. “That’s always been his position [to offset disaster aid],” Hart said. “He supported offsets to the bill funding the OKC bombing recovery effort.” Those offsets were achieved in 1995 by tapping federal funds that had not yet been appropriated.
In 2011, both senators opposed legislation that would have granted necessary funding for FEMA when the agency was set to run out of money. Sending the funds to FEMA would have been “unconscionable,” Coburn said at the time.
Events like the Oklahoma tornado are called “emergencies” and “disasters” because they cannot be strictly anticipated or budgeted for. When they occur, particularly in a big rich country, we respond, at least as rapidly and with as little initial thought about putting on the green eyeshade as in the case of military necessity. Yes, the recovery stage of any disaster requires decisions that don’t always involve saying “yes” to petititioners for help. But this sort of situation is a reminder that all the alarmist talk of fiscal hawks about a deficit and debt “crisis” looks pretty ridiculous when the real thing comes along.
Politics can wait just a bit: in honor of the victims of the killer tornado yesterday, here’s The Call performing “Oklahoma.”
Lotta interruptions to blogging today. Maybe tomorrow I’ll cut off the phone and ignore the doorbell.
Here are some final items of the day:
* Supreme Court accepts first case in thirty years involving public prayers at government meetings. Except the howling from the Christian Right to begin commencing momentarily.
* The small world of former Romney ‘12 foreign policy advisors roiled by new ebook from colleague alleging chaos and indifference to substance.
* Rep. Jason Chaffetz, deputy to Darrell Issa with primary responsibility for Benghazi!, dances around the “I-word,” but won’t dismiss it.
* At Ten Miles Square, John Sides throws cold water on idea that 501(c)(4) controversy could lead to big-picture campaign finance reforms.
* At College Guide, Daniel Luzer looks at Conde Nast College of Fashion and Design as school that combines high cost and almost no vocational value.
And in non-political news:
* Ray Manzarek, co-founder of The Doors, dies at 74, outliving Jim Morrison by more than three decades. I’ll have a video tribute tomorrow morning.
To close the day, here’s Manfred Mann’s Earth Band performing “Buddha” on German television in 1974. This tune was on the first album I bought to check out my very first real stereo system.
At Ten Miles Square today, Sarah Binder evaluates the chess game going on between Harry Reid and Senate Republicans over the filibustering of executive and judicial-branch nominees. Like Jonathan Bernstein, she thinks the key factor is the credibility of Harry Reid’s threat to “go nuclear.” But, she notes, Reid’s not the only one with cards to play:
As a potentially nuclear Senate summer approaches, I would keep handy an alternative interpretation. Reid isn’t the only actor with a threat: given Republicans’ aggressive use of Rule 22, Republicans can credibly threaten to retaliate procedurally if the Democrats go nuclear. And that might be a far more credible threat than Reid’s. We know from the report on Reid’s nuclear thinking that “senior Democratic Senators have privately expressed worry to the Majority Leader that revisiting the rules could imperil the immigration push, and have asked him to delay it until after immigration reform is done (or is killed).” That tidbit suggests that Democrats consider the GOP threat to retaliate as a near certainty. In other words, if Republicans decide not to block all three nominees and Democrats don’t go nuclear, we might reasonably conclude that the minority’s threat to retaliate was pivotal to the outcome. As Steve Smith, Tony Madonna and I argued some time ago, the nuclear option might be technically feasible but not necessarily politically feasible.
To be sure, it’s hard to arbitrate between these two competing mechanisms that might underlie Senate politics this summer. In either scenario—the majority tames the minority or the minority scares the bejeezus out of the majority—the same outcome ensues: Nothing.
What Senate Democrats need to think through is how bad an implemented Republican threat to shut down the Senate would be as compared to the status quo, particularly if the immigration bill is out of the way. Yes, Republicans could object constantly to unanimous consent requests and other routine measures and make life miserable. But for the most party, a Senate where most important legislation requires sixty votes would be replaced by a Senate where all legislation requires sixty votes. That doesn’t sound like a lurch hellwards to me. The Senate is already dancing to the devil’s tune.
This is a subject that anyone who cares about public education policy should pay some attention to: on the very brink of the implementation phase of the Common Core Standards movement, a bipartisan, non-federal drive for a new and more rigorous system of educational accountability measures spearheaded by the governors (see the extensive coverage of this development in the May/June 2012 issue of the Washington Monthly), conservative grassroots pressure is building rapidly on Republican governors and legislators to bail out altogether.
One of many growing signs of this revolt occurred over the weekend in Georgia, when only the absence of a quorum at a sparsely attended state GOP convention short-circuited a resolution (favorably reported by the convention’s resolutions committee) that would have upbraided Republican Gov. Nathan Deal for collaborating with Common Core Standards. The language of this resolution, reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Jim Galloway, is instructive:
WHEREAS, the control of education is left to the States and the people and is not an enumerated power of Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution; and
WHEREAS, in 2010 Georgia Executive Branch officials committed this state to adopting common standards with a consortium of states through the Race to the Top grant created by the federal Executive Branch; and
WHEREAS, this participation required Georgia to adopt common standards in K-12 English language arts and mathematics (now known as the Common Core State Standards Initiative) and to commit to implementing the aligned assessments developed by a consortium of states with federal money, all without the consent of the people exercised through their Legislative Branch despite the fact that the people fund K-12 education with over $13 billion in state and local taxes each year; and
WHEREAS, the Common Core standards have been evaluated by educational experts and were determined to be no better than Georgia’s previous performance standards and according to key members of the Validation Committee, the standards were even inferior; and
WHEREAS, adoption of Common Core obliterates Georgia’s constitutional autonomy over the educational standards for Georgia’s children in English language arts and mathematics because 100 percent of the Common Core standards must be delivered through Georgia’s curriculum, yet the standards belong to unaccountable private interests in Washington, D.C. which have copyright authority and do not allow any standards to be deleted or changed, but only allow Georgia to add 15 percent to those standards; and
WHEREAS, this push to nationalize standards will inevitably lead to more centralization of education in violation of federalism and local control and violates the spirit, if not the letter, of three federal laws; and
WHEREAS, both the Common Core standards and the PARCC tests will create new tax burdens to pay for enormous unfunded mandates on our state and our local school districts; and
WHEREAS, the Race to the Top grant conditions require the collection and sharing of massive amounts of student-level data through the PARCC agreement which violates student privacy;
THEREFORE, the Georgia Republican Party delegates to the 2013 Convention resolve that state leaders should:
** Withdraw Georgia from the Common Core State Standards Initiative;
** Withdraw Georgia from the PARCC consortium and its planned assessments for Georgia’s students, and any other testing aligned with the Common Core standards;
** Prohibit all state officials from entering into any agreements that cede any measure of control over Georgia education to entities outside the state and ensure that all content standards as well as curriculum decisions supporting those standards are adopted through a transparent statewide and/or local process fully accountable to the citizens in every school district of Georgia; and
** Prohibit the collection, tracking, and sharing of personally identifiable student and teacher data except with schools or educational agencies within the state.
Since we’re talking about HRC, it’s interesting that TAP’s Paul Waldman (who greets the news that Mark Penn isn’t going to be the Public Face of any future Hillary Clinton campaign with great joy) wonders if one of the Democratic criticisms we heard about HRC in 2008 would return if she ran in 2016:
Back during the 2008 primaries, a lot of Obama supporters argued that despite Clinton’s contributions and qualifications, if she became president it would just drag America back into a period of nasty partisanship, not through any fault of her own but because Republicans hate her so. Wouldn’t it be better, they said, to have a candidate who could become a unifying figure and diffuse some of that Republican anger?
I wasn’t supporting Clinton at the time, but it wasn’t hard to tell that argument was fundamentally misconceived. But I wouldn’t be surprised if people started making it again if she becomes a candidate. We’ve just been through eight years of venomous Republican attacks on Barack Obama, they’ll say. Do we really want to stay stuck in that mud with a candidate that they may despise even more?
The lesson that should be drawn from recent history is that it really doesn’t matter who the Democratic nominee is. Republicans will hate him or her, and that hate will grow from an ember to a consuming fire. It will make twist them in knots, it will make them say crazy things, it may even consume their hopes of gaining back the White House. That hate will have a different flavor depending on who the candidate is—if it’s Clinton, we’ll see the return of all the sexual panic and misogyny she inspires—but what won’t change is its quantity. Even someone Republicans barely know now, like Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, will produce the same venomous reaction.
Now like Paul, I never really bought the argument in 2008 that conservatives would hate on Hillary more than Barack Obama, except in the limited sense that I figured many of them would be a bit reluctant to go after the first African-American presidential nominee (and I was sure wrong about that!). I did think that HRC had become a pop culture figure whose image, for better or worse, was too powerful to be changed by conventional political tactics, which placed both a ceiling above and a floor below her levels of support.
But the same polarizing forces that made HRC look like a candidate whose “swing vote” was about 5% in 2008 later hit Obama with extraordinary force, and I suppose it’s possible to imagine that its strength is unique to historic political figures representing the aspirations of women and African-Americans. So would the same thing happen to a Martin O’Malley or an Andrew Cuomo? It’s a good question, and one I would probably answer the same way as Paul does: sometimes gender and race become potent symbols in partisan and ideological struggles, but in the end, party and ideology trump all, at least for the immediate future.
Last month Salon’s Alex Pareene spoke for a lot of progressive insiders in resisting being carried along in the tide for Hillary 2016 until a key question was answered:
The question for someone considering whether or not to support Clinton in 2016 is, will a Clinton 2016 campaign pass the Mark Penn Test? The Mark Penn Test, which I just invented, determines whether or not a person should be trusted with the presidency, based solely on one criterion: Whether or not they pay Mark Penn to do anything for their campaign. Paying Mark Penn means you’ve failed the Mark Penn Test.
Pareene’s indictment of Penn is mostly on grounds of alleged incompetence and general hackitude, in company with some other Clinton family retainers:
Mark Penn is just the worst example of the general Clinton family habit of associating with the most repulsive party hacks the Democrats have to offer. Her campaign was a dream team of generally useless hacks, from sweatered communications director Howard Wolfson to charmless fundraiser Terry McAuliffe to ill-tempered Harold Ickes (who, unlike the rest of the campaign, at least seemed mostly competent). These are the same Clintons who are responsible for the national stature, such as it is, of Dick Morris.
But a lot of the hostility to Penn that is near-universal among progressives is ideological, too. Penn (whose background was mostly in corporate polling) was brought into the Clinton White House by Dick Morris during the runup to the 1996 presidential campaign, when Clinton was (according to many House Democrats then and since) “triangulating” against a congressional Democratic Party that harbored significant (and in the House, majority) opposition to his trade and welfare reform legislation. After Morris self-destructed in 1996, Penn became the most visible and abrasive White House “strategist,” and a continuing lightning rod for liberal complaints about the policies of the 42d president. He also developed an unsavory reputation for number-cooking among many political insiders, though a lot of that was probably attributable to his relatively low interest in pollster transparency.
When Penn re-emerged as Hillary Clinton’s pollster and “strategist” going into 2008, the personal and ideological cases against him converged, and more than any other one figure in Hillaryland, he became a devil-figure both within and beyond HRC’s campaign. He was particularly associated with the campaign faction favoring a harsh negative approach to Barack Obama, and was indelibly identified with the famous “3 AM Ad” that Republicans are still alluding to in their claims that Benghazi! proves Obama can’t be trusted with national security.
Personally, having dealt with Penn a little big over the years, I attribute a lot of the devil-talk to his personality rather than his politics or skills—or his ideology, for that matter (it’s always interesting when people in politics are attacked simultaneously for lack of principle and for ideological heresy). But he does clearly represent an approach to public opinion where form follows function a bit too thorougly (here’s my own mixed-at-best review in WaMo of a book by Penn that he published in 2007). And for the life of me I don’t understand why Clinton’s 2008 campaign kept putting him in front of cameras as its top spokesman.
It’s all kind of academic, though, because as we learn from Jason Horowitz’ big story at WaPo about turnover in Hillaryland, Penn (and for that matter, Howard Wolfson) is no longer a leading citizen of Hillaryland. Now on Microsoft’s payroll, he appears to have gone back to his corporate roots, and nobody connected to a potential 2016 HRC campaign sees him in their futures.
So now that Clinton’s passed the “Mark Penn Test,” and is likely to spend much of the next many months as the principle or secondary target of the Benghazi!, she obsession, she could probably head towards 2016 with her left flank much better covered.
I’m running a little late because I just had a new refrigerator delivered, and have been squeezing perishables into it.
Speaking of perishables, here are some mid-day items news items freshly thawed:
* Fascinating piece from The New Yorker’s Jane Meyer on the pressures brought to bear on a public television journalist (and station) with respect to Park Avenue, a documentary aired last year that did not please heavy donor David Koch.
* Peter Beinert offers sympathy to the devil, and argues against demonizing the IRS.
* Like me, TAP’s Paul Waldman writing about conservative switching of subject of IRS “investigation” from scrutiny of tax-exempts to non-germane tax audits.
* At Salon, Katie McDonough explores spread of poverty to the suburbs.
* Greg Sargent digs deeper into the stark partisan splits in the new CNN-ORC poll on Benghazi! and the IRS.
And in non-political news:
* Jon Stewart becoming a major celebrity in China.
Back after some chores.
Well, looks like I spoke too soon in suggesting that Republican Members of Congress weren’t interested in a legislative response to the botched IRS scrutiny of organizations applying for 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status. The Hill’s Pete Kasperowicz has the story:
House Republicans last week proposed legislation that would suspend the ability of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to conduct audits until the IRS itself is audited by Congress.
The bill, from Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), is the latest in a string of measures that have been offered in the wake of the IRS’s admission it applied extra scrutiny to conservative groups over the last few years. Republicans have said those activities were politically motivated and went unreported by senior Obama administration officials in the run-up to the 2012 election.
“We’re seeing the tip of the iceberg,” Fleming said last week. “Tea party groups, conservative professors, opinion makers who dared to speak out against Obama, and even Billy Graham were targeted for interrogations that dug into private records, seeking information on everything from donor names to Facebook posts.
“The IRS has breached the trust of the American people and its misuse of the authority to audit must be stopped while Congress investigates the breadth of this scandal.”
Fleming’s Audit the IRS Act would prevent these sorts of inquiries for 180 days, which would give Congress time to examine “how audits were misused and who is responsible for any criminal actions.”
I hate to keep confusing the “narrative” with facts, but when it comes to the 501(c)(4s), we aren’t talking about tax audits. These were reviews of applications that nobody was required to submit, and that nobody needed to submit unless they were pretty sure they were on the borders of political activities incompatible with tax-exempt status (otherwise, they could just file their tax returns like anyone else and claim tax-exempt status). As for the Graham “charities,” these were 501(c)(3)s that are subject to much stricter scrutiny, and were gearing up for a massive political ad campaign in North Carolina in favor of a same-sex marriage ban. Even then, nobody was kicking down Billy Graham’s door and seizing his files or assets; it was a review of the organizations’ status, which was quickly concluded.
What Fleming is transparently doing is conflating this activity with IRS tax return audits, and suggesting conservatives are in dire danger of all getting hauled into tax court or off to prison (much as is colleague Mike Kelley did in his inflammatory line of questioning—or more accurately speechmaking—in the House Ways & Means Committee on Friday. It’s all based on a lie bordering on a Big Lie. But if Republicans are going to go in that direction, they should at least let us know how they intend to make up the revenue lost if they insist on paralyzing all IRS tax enforcement actions.
Oh, yeah, I forgot: entitlement reform!
In all the furor over who did what when in the botched IRS scrutiny of applications for 501(c)(4) status, which confers very limited benefits on political activity absolutely no one is trying to ban or “chill” or “intimidate,” what keeps getting lost is the question of how to fix the situation. Ezra Klein succinctly summed up the options—other than perpetuating the mess forever—this morning:
We don’t want IRS agents deciding who is and who is not a primarily political group. That is not their core competency. Worse, it necessarily involves the IRS in politics, and the IRS is an agency we want kept far from politics. We either need extremely bright lines that govern the IRS’s judgments on these groups and removes the need for significant discretion or, as tax professor John Colombo argues, we should consider getting rid of the 501(c)(4) designation altogether.
I continue to think the Obama administration and its congressional allies should take the lead in proposing one or the other option, which would also involve public scrutiny of the Big Berthas among 501(c)(4) organizations that the IRS left alone to pour many tens of millions into blatantly partisan campaign ads. There is no constitutional or moral right to a federal tax exemption for political organizations (where is that in the Founding Documents, O Ye Clear Meaning of the Constitution Tea Folk?) If Congress wants to extend a statutory right to such status (as it has done in the past), it needs to justify it and clarify its application so that no IRS official, in Washington or Cincinnati or anywhere else, is exercising any significant discretion. Additional measures to completely insulate the IRS from politics would be welcome as well. But it’s ridiculous to accuse IRS personnel of some sort of political conspiracy when the rules under which they are operating are so exceptionally vague, leaving them to pursue their only real mission, which is to minimize revenue loss. And if Republicans intend to pursue this “scandal” in perpetuity, each and every one of them should be challenged incessantly to tell us how they’d fix the problem. If they don’t think there’s a problem that can’t be solved by Republicans taking over the IRS and “enforcing” the same incoherent rules, then they should tell us that as well. But in truth, there is no “solution” without clarifying the rules.
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