With Washington gripped by a trio of exploding scandals this week – from Benghazi to government spying on news outlets to thug tactics by the Internal Revenue Service – Senate Democrats seem to be hoping that if they just yell loud enough then voters will overlook a key role they played in at least one of them.
They quickly sensed the political toxicity associated with Friday's admission by the IRS that they selectively targeted conservative organizations for special government scrutiny, and so Democrats didn't waste any time springing into action. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana, for example, vowed congressional hearings and called the IRS actions "an outrageous abuse of power and a breach of the public's trust."
He was joined by a chorus of other Democrats including Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire who called it "completely unacceptable," Kay Hagan of North Carolina who called it "disturbing and troubling," and Mark Pryor of Arkansas who tweeted that he's "working to get to bottom of this so we can fire those responsible & ensure this never happens again."
Fortunately, voters won't need to look very far.The willful ignorance and revisionist history demonstrated by Senate Democrats on this issue has been breathtaking, even by Washington standards.
Over the last three years, Democratic senators repeatedly and publicly pressured the IRS to engage in the very activities that they are only now condemning today. At the same time, Republicans repeatedly and publicly warned against this abuse of government power and pointed to a series of red flags that strongly suggested conservative political organizations were being targeted by the IRS. Those warnings were deliberately ignored by the Obama administration and Democratic leaders in Congress.
As the New York Times reported back in 2010 :
With growing scrutiny of the role of tax-exempt groups in political campaigns, Congressional Republicans are pushing back against Democrats by warning about the possible misuse of the Internal Revenue Service to audit conservative groups….And the Republicans are also upset about an I.R.S. review requested by Senator Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat who leads the Finance Committee, into the political activities of tax-exempt groups. Such a review threatens to "chill the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights," wrote two Republican senators, Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Jon Kyl of Arizona, in a letter sent to the I.R.S. on Wednesday. ... Democrats dismissed the Republicans' complaints as groundless.
You read that correctly.
The same Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee who this week is calling for hearings into IRS activities, specifically called on the IRS to engage in that very conduct back in 2010. And he wasn't the only one. Just last year, a group of seven Senate Democrats sent another letter to the IRS urging them to similarly investigate these outside political organizations.
As the New York Times also reported just one week before they sent this letter:
The Internal Revenue Service is caught in an election-year struggle between Democratic lawmakers pressing for a crackdown on nonprofit political groups and conservative organizations accusing the tax agency of conducting a politically charged witch hunt.
Voters in New Hampshire may be interested to learn that Jeanne Shaheen was among the signatories of that letter urging action by the IRS.
So lost amid the hubbub surrounding the news that the IRS engaged in McCarthyite tactics to target specific political groups, and their subsequent apology for those tactics, has been the fact that the lobbying campaign from Senate Democrats actually worked.
From Max Baucus to Chuck Schumer to Jeanne Shaheen, key Senate Democrats publicly pressured the IRS to target groups that held differing political views and who, in their view, had the temerity to engage in the political process. The IRS listened to them and acted. And other Democrat senators like Kay Hagan and Mark Pryor said and did nothing about it.
Perhaps their strategy of distraction may work in the short-term with a Washington press corps pulled in a multitude of different directions, but Senate Democrats have a serious political problem that will haunt them as they head into an already-difficult election cycle. When these Senate Finance Committee hearings come to pass it would be a remarkable act of bravery and candor for one of these IRS bureaucrats to appropriately ask Max Baucus and others why they're not sitting at the witness tables next to them, instead of continuing in their charade of faux outrage.
Because Senate Democrats today have just as much explaining to do as the IRS.
Updated 11/5/13: Brian Walsh remains a paid adviser to the National Republican Senatorial Committee.