Silencing the Truth at the IRS

Here are 4 steps Republicans and Democrats could take to restore the public's trust, and why they probably won't.

WEST PALM BEACH, FL - MAY 21: Christina King (L) and Lynne Sherrer (C) hold signs during aTea Party Internal Revenue Service (IRS) demonstration on May 21, 2013 in West Palm Beach, Florida. Tea Party activists organized the protest against the Internal Revenue Service saying they improperly targeted conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.  (National Journal)

Rude and bullying, Rep. Darrell Issa silenced the microphone of Rep. Elijah Cummings during a congressional hearing into the IRS' targeting of tea party groups. "Mr. Chairman," the Democrat fumed as Republican Issa walked away, "what are you hiding?"

Issa didn't answer. "He's taking the Fifth, Elijah," Democratic Rep. Gerald Connolly joked, a reference to the committee's reluctant witness, former IRS official Lois Lerner, who refused again to explain the agency's actions, citing her constitutional right not to self-incriminate. Partisans rejoice!

  • Conservatives are applauding Issa for shutting down a Democrat. Without evidence, the Right has convicted Lerner, the IRS, the White House, and President Obama of abuse of power.
  • Liberals are applauding Cummings for standing up to Issa. Without evidence, the Left exonerated everybody. The fact that liberal nonprofits also were targeted is relevant, but not conclusive.

To the rest of the country, the "investigations" of the IRS — self-serving inquiries conducted separately by the GOP House and the Obama administration — are partisan jokes. We still don't know the facts. We still have no reason to trust the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, the IRS, Congress, or the White House.

Rather than a political circus like the one disguising itself as a House Oversight and Government Reform hearing Wednesday, a credible Congress would jointly agree to:

1. Grant immunity to Lerner for her sworn testimony about the IRS's targeting of political groups. What was done, why, and under whose orders?

2. Demand from the administration every IRS and White House document pertaining to the IRS tea-party probes, including emails, text messages, meeting notes, and diaries. If the White House has legal grounds to duck its promise of transparency, a joint Democratic-GOP demand would create insurmountable political pressure.

3. Embrace the new rule for 501(c)(4) nonprofits. The root of this controversy is a law that says nonprofits needs to "exclusively" focus on social welfare to be tax-exempt. The IRS inexcusably ruled that social welfare must be the groups' "primary focus," creating a loophole that both parties have abused. Groups such as Crossroads GPS, created by former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove, and the liberal-leaning Patriot Majority are blatantly political — to the point that they are replicating, if not replacing, the traditional roles of the Democratic and Republican parties. Now that a chastened IRS is trying to close the loophole, partisans on the right and left are objecting.

4. Stop lying. Both sides are distorting the facts for political gain, but Issa is the worst abuser. As Dana Milbank pointed out in his Washington Post column:

Earlier in his capricious tenure, he banned Democratic witness Sandra Fluke from a panel about birth control, leaving an all-male slate of witnesses and giving his Republican Party a major embarrassment. His hearings have been chaotic affairs in which he talks over members of his panel, and he has often discredited his committee's investigations by making incendiary accusations that turn out to be unfounded.

His latest: speculating at a fundraiser last month about why Pentagon assets were not mobilized to protect American facilities in Benghazi, Libya, when they were attacked in 2012 because Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton "told them to stand down." But the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee found that there were no such orders. "Well," Issa told Fox News's Chris Wallace when pressed about this on Sunday, "the use in answering questions in a political fundraiser, that was in response to a question, the term 'stand down' is not used in some sort of an explicit way."

On the IRS, similarly, Issa had said that it was "the targeting of the president's political enemies effectively and lies about it," and that he would prove it was directed "out of Washington headquarters." But Issa found no such proof, and on Wednesday he acknowledged that "roads lead to Ms. Lerner."

Milbank is right: Issa has found no proof, and he should be held accountable for suggesting otherwise. But it's almost as dishonest for Democrats to claim that there is no proof. We don't know what a full and fair investigation would yield. We don't know the truth. It's been silenced.