Over the weekend, the Internal Revenue Service faced criticism for targeting Tea Party organizations and other conservative groups for heightened scrutiny. This included nonprofits that criticized the government, as well as groups involved in educating Americans on the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
It sounds bad—and it is—but there are important details worth noting. First, this wasn’t an effort to suppress dissent. Back in 2010, the IRS was saw an explosion 501(c)4 groups seeking tax-exempt status. Since this is only legal for groups that educate or serve some general welfare beyond electioneering, the office responsible for viewing all applications—located in Cincinnati—needed an easy way to sort legitimate applications from ones that needed additional scrutiny.
At the time, Tea Party groups were registering for the designation in large numbers. And while many fit the criteria, there was no doubt that some existed solely to promote the Republican Party and other causes. IRS officials in Cincinnati didn’t have a way to separate the legitimate applications from the questionable ones, but they could separate Tea Party groups and give them another look. So they used search filters to separate those groups from the whole, in order to ensure they met the requirements for tax exempt status. And because there was no automatic review of decisions from this office, it took time before higher-ups in Washington knew what was happening. As soon as they found out, they shut the process down.
Now, this was obviously a blunder—it opened the IRS to charges of politicization—but it wasn’t malicious. The focus on groups with “patriot” or “tea party” was less a move to attack critics of the government (or the administration), and more an attempt to streamline a heavy workload.
It’s hard to fault the GOP’s reaction. Maine Senator Susan Collins called it “chilling,” and Republicans in both chambers of Congress have demanded an investigation of the IRS, which is absolutely necessary. If the situation were reversed—and IRS officials under a Republican president were doing the same to Democratic groups—I’d support calls for an investigation of the agency.
If there’s a problem, it’s that this provides fodder for conservative scandal-making, even if there’s no evidence of a connection between the IRS officials in Ohio and the Obama administration. Indeed, it has already joined Benghazi as part of the Republican Party’s questionable case for corruption in the Obama administration. On Friday, GOP James Inhofe described the latter as “the most serious, most egregious coverup in American history,” while on yesterday’s broadcast of This Week with George Stephanopolous, Washington Post columnist George Will floated impeachment for the IRS scandal, comparing the affair to the Watergate break-ins.
Indeed, with both controversies, Republicans have all but accused Obama of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” With Benghazi, it’s that he deliberately failed to prevent an attack on the installation, then concealed the affair in order to avoid criticism and win reelection. And with the IRS, it’s that he is using his power to target and intimidate its opponents.
If either of those are true, then President Obama would deserve impeachment. But both are bunk; aside from conservative fever dreams, there’s nothing to support either assertion.
That may not matter. As Michael Tomasky noted in his column on the possible Republican push for impeachment, “Most Republican members of the House live in districts where it is a given that Obama is a socialist; that’s he bent on bringing the United States of America down…that he’s not a legitimate occupant of the Oval Office to start with.”
The final part is key. To a large and influential chunk of the Republican Party, Barack Obama is simply illegitimate. It was the same with Bill Clinton twenty years ago, and it’s likely to be true of any Democrat who wins the presidency. In Obama’s case, it’s why “birtherism” took hold among the conservative base, and it’s why GOP lawmakers have done everything possible to obstruct the actual process of governing, going as far as to block his nominees to the Cabinet—an unprecedented level of obstruction.
Increasingly, the question isn’t “will Republicans try to impeach Obama,” it’s “when will it happen?” If the GOP takes the Senate in next year’s elections, and thus gains control of Congress, don’t be surprised if we begin 2015 with impeachment proceedings against the president. The conservative base wants it, and as we’ve seen over the last four years, that’s all it takes for the Republican Party to act.