Darrell Issa Lunges for the White House, Misses, Wins Anyway

The final report on the "IRS scandal" reveals why it worked so well for Republicans.
Photograph by Bloomberg

The headline at the New York Times reads "House I.R.S. Inquiry Shows No Connections to White House." Over at Salon, it's "Issa's Final Flop." California Representative Darrell Issa is dropping the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee gavel—he's term-limited—and his final effort is generally being treated like a news-dump, a defeat.

It isn't. Technically, sure, the committee's last official product under Issa reveals no direct orders from the White House that led to the IRS targeting Tea Party activists and conservatives for special scrutiny. This might be disappointing to the people who believed Fox News's Carl Cameron, when in 2013 he suggested that Issa could follow the scandal "all the way up into the White House," or the people who believed House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rodgers when he said special targeting was based on "the enemies list out of the White House."

None of that was true, and, in fact, the investigations into the IRS moved on at least a year ago. What happened in late 2013, and happened with some finality in this report, was that Republicans insisted that all criticism from Democrats of the post-Citizens United campaign finance regime was a sort of smoke signal intended to destroy conservative free speech. The argument was not that the White House directed the IRS to, say, take down the Northeast Ohio Tea Party. It was that the White House never had a right to question the loosened campaign finance laws that allowed conservative groups (and liberal groups) to engage in more "social welfare" activity.

This is all clear in the report. It argues first that "evidence shows an IRS responsive to the partisan policy objectives of the White House and an IRS leadership that coordinates with political appointees of the Obama Administration." The "partisan policy objectives" are defined later:

Within the backdrop of Citizens United and anonymous political speech, the IRS systematically targeted and delayed tax-exempt applications filed by conservative-leaning organizations.

Throughout the report, the White House is linked to "targeting" by the very simple method of defining literally every interaction between the executive and the IRS as "political." To wit:

Evidence suggests that the Administration viewed the IRS as a political and policy extension of the Administration. For example, in January 2011, the Democratic staff of the House Ways and Means Committee notified the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) about an upcoming hearing on ObamaCare. The Democratic staff director wrote to several White House and HHS officials: “My lovely and considerate counterpart just informed us that we are having a full Committee hearing next Wed[nesday] on [health] reform’s effect on jobs and the economy... Also, wanted to see whether we wanted to have an Admin witness. Have no idea if we do or if you can do it, but if someone could be confident and strong, then it may throw them off because we’d be able to frame it without other witnesses at the table... ” Nancy-Ann DeParle, then-Director of the White House Office of Health Reform, forwarded the e-mail to IRS Chief of Staff Jonathan Davis, asking for the information for the Administration’s use at the hearing. She wrote: “I am trying to pull together some background materials for the Ways & Means hearing next week that Dems believe will focus on the following... Does... IRS have anything already prepared, particularly on the 1099, small business tax credit, tax on investment income topics?”

A layman reading that might just think that the White House asked the IRS for information that it would have at hand about its official role. But in the eyes of Republican investigators, this represented ominous coordination. Any attempt by Democrats to ask the IRS about what were understood to be its policies was coordination. That was how, in 2013 and 2014, Republicans and outside groups attacked Democrats who had responded to the Citizens United ruling by asking the IRS to check out whether some "social welfare" organization was engaged in raw politics. Days before the November 2014 election, conservatives even argued that New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen was "embroiled" and "implicated" in "IRS targeting," because (as had been reported) she'd written a letter to the IRS concerning the scrutiny of groups that claimed to be engaged in "social welfare" but were actually using that designation to conceal donor money and spend big in political campaigns.

This isn't very complicated. It's just brazen. The final Issa report is more of a victory bugle blare than a surrender, because "linking the White House" to the scandal was accomplished by turning any criticism of our flimsy campaign finance laws into a scandal.

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