When John Boehner appointed South Carolina congressman Trey Gowdy to chair a select committee on Benghazi, it was like a manager taking the ball from a struggling starting pitcher and calling in a reliever to see if he might be able to carry the team to victory. Except in this case, the starter being pummelled—Darrell Issa, chair of the House Oversight Committee—was still pitching in another couple of games, with no improvement in results. Listening to this NPR story yesterday about Issa's continued inability to get where Republicans want to go with the IRS scandalette, it occurred to me that it really is an almost perfect expression of contemporary congressional Republicanism.
There's the obsession with conservative victimhood, (For the record, not one of the nonprofit groups scrutinized by the IRS for possible political activity was constrained from doing anything by having its 501(c)(4) application delayed; a group whose application is pending can operate as freely one whose nonprofit status is already approved.) There's the utter disinterest in governing or the actual operation of government, in favor of a fruitless quest for partisan advantage. There's the obliviousness to facts. There's the fervent belief that even if they can't find any malfeasance it must surely be there somewhere waiting to be uncovered, because it's Barack Obama we're talking about here, and we just know in our guts that he must have done something horrible. Consider these recent remarks from Issa:
An interesting question that gets asked is, "Are we close to the bottom?" The bottom turns out to be here in Washington, Lois Lerner and people directly related to her clearly have been shown to abuse conservatives for their views. Now the question is can we get to the top. So far, Lois Lerner is as high as we've been able to substantiate, but we do certainly understand that the IRS commissioners knew or should have known about her activities and made trips to the White House. That's a big part of where—we may never get those answers, but it certainly looks like Lois Lerner didn't act alone.
I'm not sure exactly what he means "we've been able to substantiate" about Lois Lerner, but he's sure that the conspiracy goes higher, even up to the top. The IRS commissioner "made trips to the White House," for pete's sake! But the fact that in 2014 Issa is still talking about this particular component of the story after it was thoroughly debunked—in actuality, the commissioner made a small number of trips to the White House to attend meetings about implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which involves the IRS verifying income data—demonstrates just how far Issa is from ever getting the goods on the Obama administration. "Lois Lerner didn't act alone," he says, not because he actually has any evidence of a conspiracy, but because, well, c'mon!
Which brings us to the final way in which the IRS scandal is a microcosm of this entire era of Republican buffoonery: the hapless bumbling, culminating in humiliating failure. They really thought this scandal had potential. After all, it involved the most hated agency in Washington, and it seemed like they were sure to find the smoking gun. But then they didn't, and the scandal goes on only in the fevered imaginations that flourish within the conservative bubble. They'll still be talking about it years from now.
Having failed to catch the Obama administration in an impeachable act, Republicans could at least have used the story to put forward some reforms that could make the IRS work better. They could have proposed clarifying the law on charitable groups, or providing extra training for IRS workers (who plainly found current law vague and confusing to implement, because it is), or any of a number of reforms to make sure nothing even remotely like this happens again. But they didn't propose those things. What are they advocating instead? Cutting the IRS' enforcement budget, so it's easier for people (especially rich people who can employ tax avoidance schemes) to get away with not paying their taxes.
When the scandal didn't turn out to be what they thought it was, they could have turned it into something productive for the country, and with relatively little effort. (Democrats would surely have gone along with any productive reforms.) But they didn't bother. And there you have it.