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Why The IRS Scandal Is Built To Last

Ousted IRS chief Steve Miller (right) and J. Russell George, a Treasury inspector general, take the oath before testifying on before the House Ways and Means Committee on Friday.
Charles Dharapak
Ousted IRS chief Steve Miller (right) and J. Russell George, a Treasury inspector general, take the oath before testifying on before the House Ways and Means Committee on Friday.

Of all the controversies swirling around the Obama White House, the Internal Revenue Service scandal seems likeliest to have the longest shelf life.

While the Benghazi affair has long been in the news, it's never really taken off as an issue beyond the Republican base.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration's position that national security considerations justified the Justice Department's gathering of journalists' phone records in a leak investigation may be enough to remove fuel from the outrage. Voters typically give presidents a wide berth when commanders in chief invoke national security, especially since Sept. 11.

But the IRS has a relationship with Americans that's far from warm and fuzzy. Indeed, as the agency that enforces the nation's tax laws, it's the part of government Americans most love to hate.

So the revelation that some of its workers were doing something as objectionable as singling out applications for tax-exempt status from conservative groups is just one more log tossed on a raging anti-IRS bonfire.

And that's even before you get to the IRS's role as the agency vested with enforcing the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate.

That feature of Obamacare is perhaps the one most detested by conservatives. The scandal provides them with a new and possibly potent anti-Obamacare talking point.

Add to that how readily the scandal feeds the American appetite for conspiracy theories and it's easy to see how the administration may be dealing with this crisis far longer than its other current controversies.

"Talking to my clients on the Hill, one of things you're hearing is that [of all the scandals] the IRS might be the most permanent and may be the most egregious," said Jim Innocenzi, a long-time Republican communications strategist. "From a partisan perspective, it's the gift that keeps on giving ..."

Innocenzi, whose firm makes ads for Republican political candidates, said it's still too early to know how the IRS scandal will play out. But he's fairly sure it it's not going anywhere soon unless the president goes much further than he already has. For instance, replacing one bureaucrat most of the public has never heard of, fired acting IRS Commissioner Steve Miller, with another bureaucrat the public has never heard of, new acting Commissioner Daniel Werfel, is not nearly enough.

But though Innocenzi thinks the IRS scandal has legs, even he isn't willing to go so far as to say that President Obama will be plagued by it until the end of his term.

If a special prosecutor were appointed, for instance, and exonerated the White House, that could go a long way to clearing the air. "If he did nothing, if it had nothing to with him, then appoint a special prosecutor and find out who did. Because they [the IRS] trampled on a lot of Americans' civil liberties." (Obama has dismissed such calls. Congress has the power to appoint special prosecutors.)

While it's surely in Republican interests to keep the IRS story going and to say it's far from running its course, Democrats obviously hope that isn't true.

"There's absolutely no evidence that anybody at the White House was pushing any buttons or pulling any levers on that stuff," said Peter Fenn, a veteran Democratic communications strategist. "There's no there there. I just don't think this is going anywhere.

"The American people want to get something done. They want to see the Congress do something. Why is it in the latest poll today today [when] they ask if you're going for a Democrat for Congress, a Republican or independent, third party is ahead? They're so mad at Congress they can't see straight. They want to pass immigration reform. They want to see real movement on the economy and jobs. This stuff [like the IRS scandal] is just another ... sideshow."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.
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