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June 26, 2014 10:18 AM Just Say “IRS” and Shriek and Point

By Ed Kilgore

This has been apparent for a while, but it’s clearer every day that the “IRS scandal” has little or nothing to do with the agency’s supposed discrimination against conservative groups applying for non-profit status in order to hide their donors, and everything with to do with exploiting generalized fear and rage towards the IRS.

The latest example is the claim that the central figure in the “scandal,” Lois Lerner, once tried to trigger an audit of Sen. Chuck Grassley. Poor Farmer Chuck! Will agents of Obama’s Gestapo soon be kicking down his door and seizing his assets? Could this happen to you?

After looking into the claims, Slate’s Dave Weigel quickly concludes that Lerner casually expressed curiosity as to whether an organization that asked her to speak at an event was also inappropriately offering to pay for attendance by Grassley’s wife, violating tax rules. Informed there was no there there, she dropped it. This all happened internally. Farmer Chuck was never in danger of having his door kicked it. There was no audit, or even attempted audit.

Let me be clear: I am as much against Lerner’s “audit of Chuck Grassley” as I am Lerner’s decision to set a school bus on fire and cut the brakes, watching it careen off a bridge and into a canyon. As she appears to have done neither of these horrible things, I’d argue that the vanishing of the IRS’s and EPA’s tranches of emails, for reasons that confound techies, are much more scandalous than the hour Lerner apparently spent wondering if she had to refer a senatorial speaking invitation to the exam department.

You get the drift. Just by invoking the specter of an IRS audit, the GOP inquisitors immediately win half their case in the court of public opinion, particularly among their “base” audience, which is not only composed of people paranoid about the federal government, but is also (on average, mind you) wealthy enough to worry regularly about tax audits.

Now all this may suggest that something needs to be done to curb or even reverse the IRS’ age-old use of fear and intimidation to encourage people to obey the tax laws, a habit that has zero to do with the party controlling the White House. But the non-existing connection between Barack Obama and the generally non-controversial stuff that seems to have been going on in the non-profit political group arena also has nothing to do with why people shudder at the letters “IRS.”

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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