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June 04, 2013 10:04 AM Blowing the Slam Dunk

By Ed Kilgore

Congressional Republicans have obviously been given an enormous gift by the IRS’ behavior in setting up special foot-dragging procedures for dealing with 501(c)(4) applications. The substance of the issue is far too complex for most people—and most journalists—to even begin to understand. That combined with general fear of and antipathy towards the tax collectors means any bad behavior is treated like all bad behavior. And inevitably the Obama administration and the “pro-tax party” will be a share of blame even if they are not actually in any way responsible for the bad behavior.

From a “messaging” point of view, this is like “Tax Day” over and over and over again.

But if it’s possible to screw up this can’t-lose situation, it may well be that House Republicans are capable of it. WaPo’s Dana Milbank aptly summed up the circus atmosphere:

A third House committee joined the stampede to examine the IRS on Monday, and its chairman did exactly what you would expect somebody to do before launching a fair and impartial investigation: He went on Fox News Channel and implicated the White House.
Asked by Fox’s Bill Hemmer what he hoped to learn at Monday afternoon’s hearing, Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) offered this bit of pre-hearing analysis:
“Of course, the enemies list out of the White House that IRS was engaged in shutting down or trying to shut down the conservative political viewpoint across the country — an enemies list that rivals that of another president some time ago.”
It was a sentence in need of a verb but packed with innuendo. And it is part of an approach by House Republicans that seems to follow the Lewis Carroll school of jurisprudence. Not only are they placing the sentence before the verdict, they’re putting the verdict before the trial.

Today’s big hearing in the Ways & Means Committee shows another rather glaring problem with the IRS investigation: a cavalcade of “victims”— including four local tea party groups, a near-moribund anti-gay-marriage organization, and an anti-choice organization—which aren’t exactly universally respected. It will be difficult to avoid the impression that the purpose of the hearings is to allow conservatives to whine to each other about the perfidy of the Obama administration—not exactly a new phenomenon. It’s the kind of show that only “the base” is likely to appreciate or, over time, watch at all.

And then there’s the GOP effort to use the IRS “scandal” to promote substantive tax legislation. But it’s all over the place. The chairman of the committee holding the parade of IRS victims today, Rep. Dave Camp, is hell-bent on getting his colleagues to make a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code the Republican condition for going along with a debt limit increase this fall. Being a hammer, he sees the “scandal” as a heaven-sent “nail:”

Mr. Camp has approached the task methodically. Eleven bipartisan working groups last month completed their assessments of tax issues in areas like tax-exempt organizations, education, manufacturing, retirement savings and real estate. On May 6, the bipartisan Joint Committee on Taxation wrapped up a 568-page compendium of options to overhaul the code.
What he lacks, at least so far, is the voter backing needed to propel the effort, which by definition would mean sacrificing or curtailing some politically popular tax breaks, like education tax credits and the mortgage interest deduction. Republican aides say that support, fueled by anger, could be building.

I somehow doubt the “anger,” such as it is, will be clearly focused on the need for lower tax rates and fewer “loopholes.” The emotional thrust of the “scandal” has been that the IRS is harassing (if not persecuting) anyone denied their apparent First Amendment right to a tax exemption for political activity. It’s not necessarily the right atmosphere for a painstaking review of the tax code, and among the “base,” no parsing of deductions, exclusions and credits can possibly compete with “Flat Tax” schemes that include the actual abolition of the IRS, particularly when they are being flogged by a budding young demagogue like Sen. Ted Cruz.

I figure congressional Republicans and their media friends have about a week to make the IRS investigations interesting and/or revelatory before it begins to look like conservatives are quite literally just talking to themselves, at which time the whole thing could backfire. But they don’t exactly seem to have a firm grip on the ball or a clear play to run.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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