IRS "Scandal" Turning Out to be Less Dastardly than Conservatives Think

Over the weekend, the New York Times published a comprehensive, deeply-reported look at the Internal Revenue Scandal. Far from finding evidence of a White House aiming to undermine its opponents, the Times uncovered a much more banal story—that of an understaffed and under-resourced agency, straining to do its job in difficult circumstances. Here’s the Times with more:

Overseen by a revolving cast of midlevel managers, stalled by miscommunication with I.R.S. lawyers and executives in Washington and confused about the rules they were enforcing, the Cincinnati specialists flagged virtually every application with Tea Party in its name. But their review went beyond conservative groups: more than 400 organizations came under scrutiny, including at least two dozen liberal-leaning ones and some that were seemingly apolitical.

Over three years, as the office struggled with a growing caseload of advocacy groups seeking tax exemptions, responsibility for the cases moved from one group of specialists to another, and the Determinations Unit, which handles all nonprofit applications, was reorganized. One batch of cases sat ignored for months. Few if any of the employees were experts on tax law, contributing to waves of questionnaires about groups’ political activity and donors that top officials acknowledge were improper.

Yes, as Politico reported this morning, officials in the administration were given a heads up on the IRS investigation of this practice. And more specifically, the White House Counsel—Kathryn Ruemmler—had been told that conservative groups were the ones targeted by the IRS. That President Obama was unaware of this, however, doesn’t reflect poorly on him or his ability to manage his White House. Here’s Politico with more:

Past White House counsels — essentially, the president’s top lawyer — told the Journal that Ruemmler would’ve been right to avoid telling the president. Had she told Obama, she risked interfering in the inspector general’s work, a potentially bigger scandal.

The situation at the IRS has revealed real problems that deserve a fair investigation. But it’s a real stretch to call this a scandal of President Obama or his administration. It’s one of the realities of bureaucracy that they have their own force and momentum, and this is an unfortunate example. Put another way, not everything (or most things, in fact) in an administration is an extension of the president’s will. In other words, those who want an Obama scandal will have to look elsewhere for their fix.