This is where we are with the IRS scandal: bogged in a subset of a subset of a subset of a war between Democrats and Republicans. The Democrats fired a shot today, releasing a transcript of an interview in an attempt to get the Republicans to release other transcripts of other interviews.
To be fair, there are at least two people on Capitol Hill who care passionately about the increasingly contentious back-and-forth over these transcripts. Those two people are Rep. Darrell Issa of California, Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, and Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, ranking Democrat on that committee. The documents are records of a series of interviews conducted on behalf of the two with current and former IRS employees who may or may not have had a hand in the scandal, which involved isolating Tea Party groups for additional scrutiny when applying for tax-exempt status. The real goal, as we've noted before, is to prove or disprove that the isolation came as a result of direction from someone linked to the White House, with each side leaking portions of these interviews aimed at bolstering their argument. You can see why most of America is indifferent to the debate.
What Cummings did today is try to force the issue. For days, he's called on Issa to simply release the full set of transcripts, instead of allowing the press piecemeal access — as Cummings himself did with a favorable interview last week. Now Cummings has put his money where his mouth is, releasing the full transcript from his interview, in which a self-decribed "conservative Republican" agreed that he was the first to suggest that Tea Party groups be segregated for further review. Cummings explained his move in a letter to Issa:
Although I fundamentally disagree with the unsubstantiated claims you have made about the IRS matter being driven by the White House to attack the President’s political enemies, I wanted to give you appropriate deference in conducting Committee investigations. I hoped we could focus on a bipartisan approach that maximizes transparency and accuracy, but your staff refused several follow-up requests to meet with my staff on this issue.
So he released the transcript.
Issa responded in a statement.
After unsuccessfully trying to convince the American people that IRS officials in Washington did not play a role in inappropriate scrutiny of Tea Party groups and declaring on national television that the case of IRS targeting was ‘solved’ and Congress should ‘move on,’ this looks like flailing. Americans who think Congress should investigate IRS misconduct should be outraged by Mr. Cummings’ efforts to obstruct needed oversight.
No one — literally, no one — will be so outraged.
This is politics, guys! Remember: the transcript that Cummings leaked is the same one he shopped around last week, that we and others reported on. We looked through the full thing, and there are a few new details — for example, the man being interviewed was once called by Lois Lerner, the department head who is now on administrative leave, and told he didn't get a job. But the raw facts remain the same. Someone brought him a Tea Party application, noting that it didn't fit into the group's regular sorting system. The agents reviewed 20-25 applications daily, so the manager would often isolate similar applications so that they could be reviewed by the same person, given that they shared similar characteristics. Look, if you've ever wanted to get a more complete sense of the detailed operations of a division of the IRS that deals exclusively in the routing of complex paperwork, you should definitely read the full interview.
What actually happened is not an unimportant consideration, of course. If one of the employees said he'd received a call from Barack Obama who, between evil chuckles, asked that all Tea Party cases be sent to the FBI for prosecution, that would be important. But that's because it would be much closer to ending this war.
The interviewers even asked this guy if that happened, in essence.
Q: Do you have any reason to believe that any executives in Washington directed the screening of all Tea Party cases for enhanced scrutiny?
A: I do not.
Q: In your opinion, was the decision to screen and centralize the review of Tea Party cases the targeting of the President's political enemies?
A: I do not believe that the screening of these cases had anything to do other than consistency and identifying issues that needed to have further development.
Later he says that the responsibility doesn't lie only in Cincinnati, but also in Washington — because a group there was responsible for determining standards under which such applications should be approved. Beyond that, no smoking gun so far, in either trench.
Cummings is in the trickier position, being asked to prove a negative. This is the way with scandals. It is easier to imply wrongdoing than to prove it didn't happen. It is easier to raise the question than to answer it. It shows in polling; a CNN poll today found that 55 percent of Americans thought DC was involved in the scandal, up from 37 percent.
This is not good news for Cummings. World War I ended only once German troops threatened to mutiny. In politics, as in war, the opinion of the masses matters.
Photo: Cummings and Issa at a hearing earlier this month. (AP)